New year, new gig

2014 begins a new endeavor – my first foray into teaching. Beginning this week, I’ll be leading International Development Communications at Georgetown University’s Master of Professional Studies in Public Relations and Corporate Communications program. The class is associated with the Center for Social Impact Communication and I’m excited to spend the semester with  20 Masters students and the great group of guest speakers lined up!

I’m really excited by the two key projects in the class:

  1. Tricky subject, no?
    Tricky subject, no?

    Due to its emerging nature, no comprehensive reference of the fundamentals of “International Development Communications” exists. Throughout the course of the semester, students will  develop and hone a set of criteria that will merge the elements of sound communications and the fundamental concepts of international development. Following the discussion of class readings, students will review the set of criteria each week and determine if elements can and should be added to provide clarity and guidance to professionals and amateurs alike. Students will then present and discuss the communications products they brought to class each week within groups, to apply the revised criteria and analyze the products. We will build this online platform throughout the semester and at the end, students will determine if/how to make their work available as a resource for public consumption.

  2. Student groups will work with interested non-profit organizations in the global south as clients to provide branding, communications and marketing support. These organizations will share their history, their work, and their current communications products. The task is to learn more about their external communications needs and provide them with ideas for a new strategy and creative suite (suggestions for new or revised logo/tagline, website, blog, brochure, publications, photography, swag, etc.), based on their available staff and resources, as well as deliver two products for the organizations’ use. (I’m thrilled that Judith Madigan, co-founder of BrandOutLoud, will be joining us on our first meeting to share her know-how!)

Below I’m sharing the course description, themes, and key questions that we’ll be discussing each week. I’m anti-spoiler, so I won’t be sharing readings (yet) but stay tuned as the weeks go by!

Got additional questions or thoughts for us? Feel free to share them in the comments.


Georgetown University, MPS PR/CC | Spring 2014

International Development Communications


Course Description

The models of providing poverty-reducing aid to developing countries are changing, and more than ever before, globally-engaged citizens in rich nations are looking for effective ways to affect change in the developing world. Despite the fact that global issues like poverty and hunger are incredibly complicated, people tend to communicate them in easy-to-understand terms. Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign demonstrated that general audiences still respond well to messaging that offers an us/them, black/white solution that can be acted on quickly. But this is not the reality of how social, political, and institutional change works anywhere.

How can a new generation of communications professionals embrace nuance without turning the public off? The primary goal of the course is to provide students an in-depth understanding of the key concepts that are the underpinnings of international aid and philanthropy work, such as advocacy, results, and sustainability. Case examples and guest lectures from international development experts will prepare students to lead communications for NGOs, government agencies, and CSR efforts. By the end of the semester, students will have compiled an online portfolio of products that represent their analyses of the “best” and “worst” of international development communications.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this class you should be able to:

  • Be an effective bridge between those who understand exactly what makes international development programs effective and those just interested in the bottom line.
  • Identify and demystify aid industry jargon.
  • Apply best practices in online and print communications to further the aims of international development organizations and programs.
  • Create an online resource for people to engage with the complexity of communicating social change.

Questions to be Explored

WEEK 1 Jan. 9 – Intro, Overview: What is international development? Does it necessarily improve poor people’s well-being? How is international development related to foreign assistance, philanthropy, international advocacy, and social enterprise, and other do-gooder endeavours? Who are the stakeholders within the ecosystem of international development? What is the size of the development “industry”? Where and how do communications fit it? What the heck are we going to be doing all semester?

WEEK 2 Jan. 16 – The state of the discourse: The words and images that color our notions of international development: How does popular culture affect the public’s perceptions of international development? How are advocacy campaigns such as #Kony2012 and aid agency marketing telling the stories of people in need and what makes them successful? Who are the communications intended to help and who actually benefits? How does jargon used in international development affect external communications? Where are the most interesting discussions on international development taking place? Why is poverty porn so profitable? Can we tell compelling stories about people in need that don’t simplify or stereotype?

WEEK 3 Jan. 23 – Relief to Development: Communications on disasters and conflicts: Who are the first responders in any disaster? When does recovery begin to occur? How does the humanitarian community respond? What role does communications play during disasters and conflicts? What are the most important elements of crisis communications? How does the portrayal of disasters and conflicts in the media color the public’s perception of international development and of people’s vulnerability and resilience? What are the ethical considerations of portraying people affected by conflict and disaster?

WEEK 4 Jan. 30 – Representation, voice, and the charity/empowerment continuum: What does the phrase, “give a man a fish…” really mean? In international development communications, generally what solutions are suggested and who suggests them? What assumptions are made about “poor” or “uneducated” people and why do these assumptions exist? How are people portrayed as victims and others as saviors in international development communications? How can you tell the difference between when a person is doing something for another, as opposed to with another person? What can communications and development professionals do to support the notion of “agency”?

WEEK 5 Feb. 6 – Technology: The great hope for global development?: How is the proliferation of mobile phones in the developing world changing international development? Is technology gender neutral? Are the supply and demand side for technology equally important?

WEEK 6 Feb. 13 – Development Theory and the Real Work of Social Change: Is development (and the will to develop) an inborn process? Or must people learn it? What are the key theories/perspectives on how development occurs? How is international development related to social change? At what level (international, national, community, individual) are changes most needed to bring about long-term changes in people’s lives? How do notions of capacity building and scaling up relate to international development and social change? Are there important elements of social change that do not require financial resources? How has social transformation occurred throughout history? What makes change sustainable?

WEEK 7 Feb. 20 – Transparency and the open data revolution: What role does open data and transparency play in international development? Who needs to know exactly what donors are funding in poor countries and what information do they need? How can enhanced transparency of US aid be of benefit to ordinary people in poor countries? What are the obstacles to releasing and utilizing aid data? What besides transparency is needed to deter corruption? What are the steps needed to fully use data in citizen engagement and accountability? What obligations do aid donors and agencies have to citizens in poor countries?

WEEK 8 Feb. 27 – Perceptions of poverty and development in poor countries: Is it important for outsiders to be in touch and up-to-date with grassroots realities? How and why does “business as usual” in the social good sector exclude those at the receiving end of assistance? Why is gauging “customer satisfaction” an unexplored and un-prioritized aspect of international development work? How do we begin to understand how the viewpoints of those in the “core” and those in the “periphery” differ?

WEEK 9 Mar. 6 – “Making a difference”: The do-gooder journey: Why is the idea of “making a difference” so pervasive in the U.S.? Why do you think people’s interest in volunteer tourism and travel has risen so much over the past decade? How do our ideas about “helping” manifest themselves? Which is a more powerful force: compassion, guilt, inspiration, or cynicism? What happens when people feel called to action? What are the pros and cons of international volunteerism? What are the ideal roles foreigners should play in international development?

WEEK 10 Mar. 20 – Trade, not aid: Is the private sector the true engine of development?: Are innovation and pro-poor growth more possible with private sector involvement in international development? How does treating people as “clients” instead of “beneficiaries” different from traditional approaches to aid? What do the new fields of corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, impact investing, and philanthrocapitalism have to offer international development and what are their limitations? How is the rise of the private sector as a new player in international development viewed by humanitarian organizations?

WEEK 11 Mar. 27 – GROUP PRESENTATIONS: On the client organization, its work and context, and its communications needs, as well as  groups’ pitch/recommendations for the organization and the rationale behind them.

WEEK 12 Apr. 3 – So what? Results, impact, and evidence: How can organizations measure if what they are doing is making a difference? What are some traditional and innovative ways of evidence gathering and knowledge management in the social good sector? How much time is needed to change people’s lives for the better in the long-term? What is more important? Values or evidence? How do people deal with ambiguity and uncertainty?

WEEK 13 Apr. 10 – “Failure”, Innovation, and Scaling Up: Is it possible to learn from others’ previous mistakes and failures in international development? Or do people have to learn what works and what doesn’t work through their own trial and error? How can we learn and innovate faster? From where do new ideas usually emerge? What is the emerging role of designers in innovating to solve the world’s big problems? How is innovation taken to scale?

WEEK 14 – Apr. 24 – Partnership and “projectization”: The future of international organizations: What characterizes the traditional donor/NGO relationship? What does “good partnership” in international development entail? What are the advantages and limitations of project-based funding? Is the “democratization of aid” pending? What would this look like? What are alternative models of providing international assistance? What criteria do people use when deciding how to donate their money internationally?

WEEK 15 May 8 – Wrap Up and Next Steps: What the heck did we do all semester? How do we take this knowledge and these skills forward? What career options are possible in international development communications? How do we share our learning from the semester with the wider international development community?


  1. From @m_sherrington on Twitter: “Looks fascinating. But you’re missing a module on audience perceptions and motivations; ‘why’ comms is often simple. ‘Reality’ and ‘simplicity’ are not necessarily in conflict in Comms. NGOs have agendas, including fundraising. ‘Poverty porn’ is a lazy loaded term, just like “political correctness”. We could have a good chat!”

  2. Jennifer

    Yes! I would love to take this class and merg my worlds. So proud of you — think this is amazing. Can I dial-in or skype?

    Hugs to you and congrats on the new gig….I’ve got a new gig too…We’ll have to find a phone date to discuss. xx

  3. Thanks so much for being so generous in sharing the full description of your course.

    When working in communications regarding development initiatives, I have to be conscious of the many different audiences for communications. For instance, what I saw to donors, and how I say it, is often *vastly* different than how I communicate to local communities, largely because those audiences value very different messages, and value messages very differently. To be honest, I find communicating with large media and donors far easier than communicating with local media and communities, because the latter requires far more “personal touch”, and a misstep locally can torpedo all communications goals. I also see it as part of my job to build the capacities of local people regarding communications – I just don’t see how a person can work in a communications role for a development initiative and NOT engage in at least *some* activities to build the capacities of local staff regarding communications.

    A resource your students might find interesting is “Folklore, Rumors (or Rumours) & Urban Myths Interfering with Development & Aid/Relief Efforts, & Government Initiatives (& how these are overcome)”

    More of my own communications for development resources, which you are welcomed to reference in your class, as you like:

  4. I taught intercultural relations in various forms for almost 15 years, both to grads and undergrads. I think real cultural skills (the most important of which is cultural self-awareness) are critical in development work– especially if you’re focusing on communication. I am happy to share any of my curricula, and my experience of creating a multicultural classroom (I mean that in the political sense, not the apolitical sense) with anyone who is can use them.

    I wish I were in your course! You’re going to change their lives, just as you’ve change ours. 🙂

  5. Alison Carlman

    This is really, excellent. I’m so excited that you’re teaching, Jennifer! I bet this will be one of the most transformational and important courses in the program. How generous of you to share your syllabus online-every international development program should have a similar opportunity to discuss such important issues.

  6. Aurang Zeib


    To start with I am so delighted to see your generousity shown here. How can I access the notes, tutorials and handouts as I can’t afford to come there and attend yourlectures ……

    With warm regards

    Aurang zeib

    Student of Public Health

  7. Fantastic syllabus, Jennifer. I can’t wait to read posts about how the class unfolds. This brings to mind another topic (not that you’re not covering plenty already!) particularly as it relates to communications, which is the susceptibility of the international development sector to trends, many of which last months, not years. I don’t know that the international development sector is more vulnerable to trends than other sectors, but the impacts seem to be bigger (and worse). Congratulations on this new endeavor!

  8. Ole Kossaba

    Well from my experience as a development a development practitioner as well as a researcher, the curriculum will definitely work toward narrowing the gap that exists between various players in the field of development. It trains potential social entrepreneurs on the reality of development and potential workers in the field of development on the basic soft and hard skills they require to change the current paradigms and approaches for development.

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