Writing to Save Our Lives


Is anyone reading me?  Source: http://static.guim.co.uk

Writing is a matter of life and death.  I sincerely believe that.  If you do not, consider what it meant for a person’s name to be written—or not—on Schindler’s list.  If writing were not so grave, governments would not target journalists with such chilling zeal.  Words are power, and we face a moral obligation to harness them with as much heart and conscience as we can.

As crucial as I know the act of writing to be—a godsend for humanitarians and, we hope, a salve for readers—I marvel and sometimes despair at how much we are writing about so little.  My natural inclination should be to support the proliferation of the written word.  But when The Guardian published a “call to arms” last month, calling for an end to the “report writing madness,” I raised the pitchfork.  We are writing into the void.  When I reflect upon my career in development and humanitarian aid, the trajectory of my own relationship to writing follows a disheartening path.

The first proposal I ever wrote, for $541, requested support for a girls’ summer camp in Burkina Faso.  A friend and I hand-wrote the proposal, crossing things out and reading sections back and forth to one another; we used scissors and tape to cut and rearrange sections and then rewrote the entire thing from beginning to end to have a clean copy.  We were adorable, and a copy of that proposal, I believe, resides in my mother’s attic.  It took a night for us to write the proposal, and the glorious camp lasted for one week.

In the subsequent years of my humanitarian career, writing has become an increasingly central and far less charming component of my work, a trend that I suspect mirrors the career evolution of many an international aid worker.  The higher the managerial or technical position that we assume, the more we write, most often in English, French, Spanish, or another dominant language.  We are writing proposals, donor reports, studies, guidance documents, considerations documents, checklists, articles, manuals, and, yes, blog posts. “Last year, I wrote 800 pages,” a friend and colleague recently told me.  “Why didn’t I just write a book?”  Indeed.  Why am I not running a summer camp?

Why are we writing so much?  We are the opposite of poets, who seek to distill the essence of experience and knowledge.  Our reports and manuals forfeit clarity for length.  The last request for proposals that I read was 32 single-spaced pages long, much of it boilerplate about government requirements.  There is no beauty in that kind of bureaucracy, and you could read the entire document without really grasping that the funding in question intended to help people live better, healthier, more dignified lives.  In such cases, language stifles and oppresses more than it provides opportunities for release, learning, or improvement.

How we write is equally bleak.  International aid writing now squarely falls within the ambit of committees, task forces, and advisory boards.  Call them death panels for creative thinking; they are mostly malignant entities that seek to reinforce the labyrinth’s walls rather than to break them down.  Oh, the track changes.  If I chose to, I could spend my entire hour, day, week, month, or year, contributing to comments upon comments, comments after comments, and comments within comments on documents that, we hope, eventually will bear some semblance of sense.  No great document—excepting the King James Bible and, perhaps (time will tell), the 9/11 Commission Report—was ever created by committee, but we cling to the woolly-headed belief that reports will be enhanced by external revision and review by allegedly inclusive committees.  At their worst, these committees serve as fora for professional bullying, spaces where we feel entitled to cast aside common courtesy and to berate authors.  Only the most clarion voices can survive the maelstrom of track changes—oh, the track changes!—and even then, they are severely muted.  I have lived hegemony in action, and I apologize for participating.

Is anybody reading what we write?  Donors don’t seem to be. When is the last time you got feedback—genuine, substantive feedback—from a donor?  I once oversaw an entire $800k grant without receiving a single note of feedback from the donor, not even an out-of-office auto-reply.  Eight hundred thousand dollars spent, but not so much as a peep.  In an equally egregious example, I have lived through a scenario where a donor “rejected” a decision taken months prior—one that had been well-documented in timely submitted reports—because its agents hadn’t read the memo or even its executive summary.

Nor do policymakers make time for our collectively wrought masterpieces.  A recent internal evaluation of the World Bank’s reports noted that a full third of its reports are never read.   Another 40 percent of their reports have been downloaded fewer than 100 times.  Optimistically, one can estimate one read per 50 downloads, meaning that 40 percent of World Bank reports are read by two people, presumably both doctoral students attacking neoliberal economics.

So why are we writing?

We are writing to fill the void, to feel as if we have accomplished something, to make tangible that which we hope is true, to justify ourselves, to show something for our time.

We write to create our communities, even ones riddled with passive-aggressive bullying and, oh, the track changes and the comments upon tracked changes.  But our way of writing bears implicit exclusion.  We are not writing in tandem with people from Syria, or South Sudan, or Haiti, to create a sense of community with the people of these places or even, often, in a language they understand.  We are writing amongst ourselves, actors in the international aid community.  The creation of acronyms and jargon is an exclusionary process, and we have mastered it.  I learned this lesson most pointedly from a dear friend, an expert on child protection systems.  Despite being an expert, she herself didn’t understand much of the language of the documents that she was receiving when we collaborated on a piece of research: GBV, UASC, IASC, CPWG, WASH, GBV, etc.  These are terms that humanitarian actors in my sector take for granted, but they are not at all, in fact, part of communities’ vocabularies or even many experts’.  The words themselves are foreign as are the concepts that they import.

We write for the future.  A story.  Some years ago, after we had finished a complex piece of research in one particularly kleptocratic country, a collaborator of mine took me to her tailor—just an evening task.  After dropping off fabric and making pleasantries, we walked back to her car.  She told me that, some years prior as an adolescent girl, her tailor had been raped and impregnated by the sitting president.  “These are the men we are writing for, Mark—rapists.  Do you think they care about children, about child protection, about this ‘GBV’?  The same men who rape children?”

“So why did you work with me on this piece?” I asked.  “Was it all just a waste of our time?”

“Our work is a message in a bottle for future generations,” she replied.  “Someone in the future may find it and start fixing things from there.”

That is hope.

As William Faulkner famously told the world in his Nobel prize acceptance speech in 1950, just one year after the world began to emerge from World War II, “the poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about” things like “compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”  If we have done our jobs well as humanitarian aid workers, we should know quite a bit about compassion and sacrifice and endurance.  May we learn to tell these tales with clarity, brevity, heart, and conscience.  In solidarity.

This post was written by Mark Canavera, associate director of the CPC Learning Network, a research-practice collaborative housed at Columbia University that seeks to advance global learning about effective support for children and families in adversity.  Mark is also one of the founders of the Rustin Fund for Global Equality, which galvanizes support for the global LGBTI movement in low- and middle-income countries.

One thought on “Writing to Save Our Lives

  1. Pingback: Writing to Save Our Lives | The Dream is the Truth

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