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One of the many(!) brilliant discussions inspired and fueled by @Semhar & @InnovateAfrica on Twitter. If you’re not yet following these #Diaspora leaders, you should be. They are friends and fellow Foreign Policy Magazine #FPwomeratti

Friday’s Poetic Pause: “Paper Over People”

Once in a while someone will say something to you that perfectly encapsulates what you’ve been trying to convey, only in a more concise, elegant or articulate way. @Semhar Araia, founder of the Diaspora African Women’s Network did that for me in a conversation recently, and her brilliant summary has stayed with me over the last few weeks, resulting in this poem last night.

I dedicate it to her and the visionaries like her who dare to say, “Nope, no more. This is what we can do instead.”


Paper Over People

The system commands,
this, then, this,
don’t forget that on your checklist
of what must be done, what must be spent.
Wave your dollar before the noses,
sniffing for change, or opportunity—
which do you smell?
As you dance only in your head,
full of defensed matrixes and office-full distractions
floating around you,
Hide behind your degree of “knowing”
Because you “have” more,
and can write into guidelines,
made of lines you guided?
Because your reality is
an intellectual debate
over real lives lived?
Will you ever dare let yourself
step into “other,” into vulnerability?
Just for a moment.
It’s just a step.


Have some poems you treasure that you’d like to share with fellow aid workers and do-gooders? Please send them my way at!


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And while we’re talking jargon…how about “innovation”?

From yesterday’s “But will this be sustainable?” also comes…

“This project will be innovative.” 

The development aid sector is not lacking in ideas or methods and it’s hardly appropriate to declare one’s self “innovative,” right?

Last year when I found the one-page piece I wrote about a local implementing partner’s monitoring activity for kids in 2004 still being showcased as an “innovative best practice” by a former large aid agency for I used to work (of course by now with someone else’s name on it), I questioned whether or not innovation is even possible in these big ships that are hard to steer.

I don’t want to set the bar low, but maybe, just maybe, doing your work well and making any progress at all in challenging, changing, and complex operating environments, (let alone bureaucracies), should be considered innovative in and of itself. Maybe we should look for evidence of innovation not in the latest idea or product as in the private sector, but in the fact that individual and collective reflection processes to identify and overcome obstacles occur, resulting in changes or adaptations in our work.

Moreover, aren’t the people who intimately know a problem from the inside out, more likely to see where the possibilities for innovation lie? In the scope of action by smaller grassroots groups focused on family and community structures, is there not the potential to draw upon “innovations” for larger programs? Ultimately, where we are looking for innovation and who defines innovation is most important.

What if we can re-conceptualize “innovation” for aid? What if the thing really makes something innovative is not the idea itself, but the learning that made it possible?


Why does jargon matter to people? Perhaps it’s because these words remind us that we’re involved in what @Semhar Araia describes as “intellectual debates over real people’s lives.”

And maybe that’s not such a comfortable place.

I recommend checking out last month’s issue of InterAction’s Monthly Developments, “Frustrated by NGO Jargon?” now online. Among some other really great articles, my piece, “It’s Not YOUR Project: Why possessive adjectives are the most detrimental aid jargon we use” is included on page 16.


This post originally appeared at: 


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