Grain, fish, money: changing ‘the Africa story’

APR2014-cover“Africa = aid.” For decades this has been the story about African development in the Western and global news media. The Africa Progress Report 2014, launched today, turns that story on its head – and calls into question what we mean when we talk about “development.”

The report is called Grain, Fish, Money: Financing Africa’s Green and Blue Revolutions, and I was lucky enough to have the job of editing it. The report asks the hard questions about why Africa’s recent growth isn’t helping a lot of Africans.

The answer is reflected in the report’s title (and stunning cover). Africa is still overwhelmingly rural. “Development” in Africa has to mean economic development. That means African governments (with a bit of help from their friends) need to give farmers (and fishing communities) a much better chance.

Africa imports US$35 billion of food every year– food that could be supplied by African farmers themselves, if they had a chance to boost their productivity. Farmers need governments and investors to bridge the gaps in  infrastructure and financial services that are currently holding them back. The need for aid won’t go away soon, especially in the poorest countries. But it will go away faster if donors also help build those bridges (and roads, and ports).

There’s plenty else in the report – including some tough words about the plunder of Africa’s fisheries by foreign trawlers, especially boats from East Asia and Russia. That’s the story picked up today by the Financial Times and The Guardian.

What stands out for me is the idea that Kofi Annan expresses in the Wall Street Journal this morning: “Africa is a continent of great wealth. It is not poor.” Annan founded the Africa Progress Panel after retiring as UN secretary-general; his vision drives the Africa Progress Report.

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Taking the plunge

black-diver-diver-mdI’m going full-time freelance at the beginning of June, after four years working part-time at UNESCO as editor of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, the United Nations’ major annual survey of education around the world. That means I’ll have more time for editing and leading workshops – and for writing about language and development.

When I’m editing for UN agencies and non-government groups, I’m struck by  how eager people are to reach for the ready-made words and phrases that circulate within the development world. Very often those terms aren’t familiar to non-specialist readers. So important findings and calls to action don’t reach their targets – including the decision-makers who have the power to act on them, and the citizens and voters who can put pressure on leaders to act.

I want to unpack some of those terms on this blog, and suggest alternatives. I also want to highlight good examples of writing about development – and ways to improve writing that misses the mark.

I’ll also link to writing by others who keep an eye on the politics of good and bad writing – like Good Copy, Bad Copy, Steven Poole, the Plain English Campaign and the Center for Plain Language.

Writing/editing workshop: Brussels, May 26

After the success of my writing and editing workshops in Geneva, I’m offering one in Brussels on May 26, designed for people in international organizations who write for policymakers and the wider public.

My Geneva workshops have been attended by staff from a wide range of agencies, including UNHCR, ILO, WHO, Africa Progress Panel, Kofi Annan Foundation, Interpeace, IEC, Medair, HD Centre, ICVA, OCHA, The Global Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization and World Economic Forum.

The workshop includes hands-on exercises and focuses on:
– how to plan, structure, write clearly and revise;
– framing arguments; avoiding jargon; analysing the politics of language;
– writing press releases, opinion articles, speeches, reports, blogs and web pages.

Each workshop is tailored to the needs of its participants, which I assess in advance using a questionnaire and analysis of writing samples.

WHEN: 9:00–17:00, Monday May 26, 2014
WHERE: Multiburo Parlement Européen, Square de Meeûs 38/40B, Brussels
COST: 350 EUR (includes sandwich lunch)
TO REGISTER: Write to andrew.johnston at mac.com or call +336-6517-3966

Writing workshops: Geneva, May 12 and June 23

I am giving writing and editing workshops in Geneva on May 12 and June 23, designed for people in international organizations who write for policymakers and the wider public.

I have led three workshops in Geneva in the past six months, which have been attended by staff from a wide range of agencies, including UNHCR, ILO, WHO, Africa Progress Panel, Kofi Annan Foundation, Interpeace, IEC, Medair, HD Centre, ICVA, WTO and World Economic Forum.

The workshop includes hands-on exercises and focuses on:
– how to plan, structure, write clearly and revise;
– framing arguments; avoiding jargon; analysing the politics of language;
– writing press releases, opinion articles, speeches, reports, blogs and web pages.

Each workshop is tailored to the needs of its participants, which I assess in advance using a questionnaire and analysis of writing samples.

WHEN: 9:00–17:15, May 12 and June 23
WHERE: Hotel Eden, 135 rue de Lausanne, 1202 Geneva
COST: 350 EUR (includes coffee breaks and sandwich lunch)
TO REGISTER: Write to andrew.johnston at mac.com or call +336-6517-3966