Sunday, 13 January 2019

My take on the captivating “How Democracies Die”


Just finished reading the captivating How democracies die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

The authors, Professors of Government at Harvard University, through an engaging and informative narrative demonstrate how extreme polarization kills democracy.

As I was reading the book, I realized the wisdom in the statement: “the most effective coalitions are those that bring together groups with dissimilar - even opposing - views on many issues. They are built not among friends but among adversaries. History shows that it is possible to reconcile democracy with diversity.”

The authors put forward a fascinating four behavioral warning signs to spot an authoritarian leader.  They suggest if a leader shows one or more of these traits, he/she is a demagogue and an authoritarian:

  • “rejects, in words or action, the democratic rule of game
  • denies the legitimacy of opponents
  • tolerates or encourages violence
  • indicates a willingness to curtain the civil liberties of opponents, include the media”
Dare I say that the above four characteristics not only apply to a political leader (head of state/government, minister, party leader, politician, etc.) but also to anyone who is and/or claims to be a leader (CEO, commander, manager, boss, superior, etc.)

The authors make the case that “democracy is a shared enterprise and its fate depends on all us”. As such, they say PEOPLE and PEOPLE’s WILL are more powerful that the Constitution.

Rightfully so, they say “people are the first source of power, and the people can abolish a Constitution if they want to.”

Throughout history, people have been instrumental to topple governments and democracies. They’ve done so through peaceful marches, or violent revolutions. They’ve done so because they were fighting for a cause or because of resentment.

I am not going to pass any judgement on whether these causes  and/or resentments are right or wrong. What I have realized is that democracy is super fragile. And to make sure democracy stands the test of demagogues and authoritarian rulers, we need to invest in people and in education. 

I would like to believe that if people have a good sense of history, if people can tell apart propaganda from facts, if people are able to recognize the characteristics of authoritarian leaders, if people see the early warning signs of democratic norms being eroded, if people can see through the pseudo “economic crises, natural disasters, and especially security threats - wars, armed insurgencies, or terrorist attacks” which de facto allow autocrats to exercise authoritarian  measures and “do whatever they like”, then we would be able to safeguard our biggest gift - democracy.

Sadly, our societies have become so polarized, and this has led to eroding democratic norms, which means democracy can longer be taken for granted.

What we are left with, is to invest in people. Invest in raising awareness and building people’s understanding about the sacrosanct democratic norms and values. Invest in teaching people about the infinite benefits of living a democratic societies and cherishing diversity.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

An open invitation from UN Environment Patron of Oceans, Lewis Pugh, to join him as he swims the length of the English Channel #TheLongSwim

Lewis Pugh, UN Environment’s Patron of the Oceans is the personification of inspiration. To raise awareness about the state of our oceans, Pugh has been swimming in the frigid and freezing waters of Arctic and Antarctica. He has been putting his life at risk to show the world the impact of climate change and the vital role our oceans play for humanity.

Over the years, he’s been asking governments to put an end to the rhetoric, roll-up their sleeves and create marine protected areas. In July 2018, Pugh will embark on his toughest swim so far – something that no one to date has done.

He’ll be swimming the full length of the English Channel some 560 kilometres, which he expects will take 50 days to complete. “We’re drowning in commitments ... it is high-time for action”, says a passionate Pugh.

Photo by: Kelvin Trautman 
“I am embarking on this swim to highlight importance of proper marine protected areas – areas where human activity such as fishing, drilling, shipping, gunnery practice and disrupting marine life is restricted and/or prohibited.”

UN Environment states that marine protected areas offer one of the best options to maintain our oceans’ health and avoid further degradation. They can be particularly effective when developed as part of a wider management solution. Pugh’s message to the UK is “you can do better and more!”

UK waters cover 750,000 square kilometers with only 7 square kilometre of these fully protected marine reserve. 

A crowdsourced swim 

Pugh has been training in the cold waters off South Africa for this swim.  A man of many “firsts”, he is crowdsourcing his Channel swim. “I want politicians, mums, children, businessmen and women, anyone to join me for any section of the swim.”

“There is nothing better than seeing the impact of our wrongdoing with your own two eyes”.

At the end of his daily 10 kilometre swim, Pugh will meet with local communities to discuss their challenges and opportunities. Each stop will be an opportunity to raise awareness and advocate for increased marine protected areas.

Surfers Against Sewage, a grass-roots organization engaged in cleaning up beaches in the UK with its 75,000 volunteers, will be amplifying Pugh’s message that “our oceans are in a real mess”.

“We must stop the plastic from entering our rivers and seas. And we must create a series of marine reserves around the UK”, says Pugh.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Become your own creative agency: The back-story of UN Environment’s #BeatPollution campaign


 Those of you in the creative space know that innovative ideas come to life in the most unexpected manner. You also know that to get the creative juice going, you need to first diverge to then converge.


The divergence stage is about putting ideas on the table and not being non-judgmental. And guess what, it is inevitably your very own people and those in the trenches who come up with brilliant and creative ideas.

This is the backstory of UN Environment’s #BeatPollution campaign.

One bright day, the boss asked us to come up with an engaging, public-facing campaign to raise awareness about various dimensions of pollution. With a small budget, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. And guess what, that was the beginning of many creative sessions and iterations that resulted in a citizen engagement with over 2 million commitments to #BeatPollution.

The campaign’s secret sauce 
Embracing and nurturing the power and beauty of internal resources definitely made the difference. From the get go, this was a totally “in-sourced” campaign. It was exclusively powered by the creative juice of our own colleagues.

They came up with #BeatPollution hashtag; they came up with the information architecture for the website; they came up with the gamification; they came up with the citizen commitments; they came up with the overall look and feel of the campaign; they designed and implemented the website; they created the compelling social copy; they crafted the engaging pollution-related stories; they developed the story board for the infographics; they developed the brand identity; they strategically made this a digital-first campaign; they intelligently used social media to push out the content; they created all the cool videos and shout-outs; they forged partnerships with other entities and organizations to amplify our messages; they worked with programme colleagues to get the facts and figures; they pitched the stories…….In a nutshell THEY were the CREATIVE AGENCY.

In-sourcing the creative process meant that we did not have to adopt someone else’s blueprint. It meant we did not break the bank; it meant project management was done through team work; it meant everyone took ownership of the project; it meant we could adopt an iterative process, it meant we could adjust and tweak the campaign based on metrics and audience feedback.

Our own elbow grease allowed us to have full-control over the campaign which put us in a vantage position to swiftly make the necessary changes and respond to new and unforeseen needs.

Lessons learnt
Next time you are embarking on a public-facing initiative, start at home-base, and look inside before venturing out.  Give your own folks the space and opportunity to unleash their creative juice. You will end up with a super sleek product which everyone owns, you will not break the bank, you’ll boost morale, you’ll create an opportunity for cross-functional interaction and team work and most importantly you’ll end up giving an immense job satisfaction to your very own people.

Become your own creative agency and sharpen the skillset of your own folks by challenging and exposing them to uncharted territories.

If you happen to be a one-man band, do not despair. Remember you are not alone. There are many creative folks in the UN Social 500 network who are willing and able to act as your creative agency. What you need to do, is just reach out. You’ll definitely find an extended hand on the other side that can help you with your campaign!!!!

Good luck and make sure you visit beatpollution.org and make your commitment to #BeatPollution


This blogpost first appeared on UN Social 500

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Celebrating life and paying gratitude

Today, I want to celebrate life... Today, I want to cherish all good memories....
Today I want to learn from painful memories..... Today, I do not want to put off something for tomorrow, rather just do it.

Today, tomorrow for all the days to come, I want to live each day as if there is no tomorrow.


Today, I want to celebrate life.

Today, I want to celebrate the special moments in life.

Today, I want to say thank you to what I have.

Today, I want to celebrate the lessons learnt from my achievements and my failures.

Today I want to celebrate the many people I've crossed path with.



Today I want to celebrate my vulnerabilities.


Today, I want to celebrate the many journeys to come.











Friday, 4 August 2017

Suffering From The ‘Curse Of Knowledge’?

Take a dose of story telling, write from your heart, and adopt the inverted pyramid.

If you had a choice between reading an engineering and hydraulic account of the construction of Three Gorges Dam in China – which is the largest dam in the world – or Arundhyati Roy’s “The cost of living” – which is about the impact of infrastructure projects on people’s lives in the subcontinent, which one would you opt for?

My bet is that if you are not an engineer or hydraulic specialist, you would probably pick up Roy’s book. And this is because Roy’s account is a story about how infrastructures such as dams can positively or negatively impact people’s lives. It’s because while peppered with relevant facts, figures, and historical accounts, it is about real people – it has a plot, it has a hero, a villain, a turning point and a call to action. And this is why it makes it a compelling read.

As development workers, while we excel in writing concept notes, progress reports, case studies, we struggle to unpack the impact of our work in form of compelling stories. This is because we suffer from a chronic disease called the curse of knowledge.

Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein and Martin Weber coined the term “Curse of Knowledge” and described it as the “cardinal sin of finding it hard to imagine that others do not know what you know”. It is when we’re unable to recreate what we know in someone else’s state of mind.

Steve Pinker, Harvard cognitive scientist says, “Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it.”

He then continues to explain, “I think the curse of knowledge is the chief contributor to opaque writing”. “It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details — even when writing for professional peers.”

The good news is that if you are open-minded enough to acknowledge you are suffering from the curse of knowledge, there is a cure for it.

And the cure is pretty straightforward: simplify your “complex reality” by creating a common picture which everyone can relate to. Tell human and impact stories featuring real people. Use metaphors and analogies. Know your audience and make your content relevant to them by catering to what they need and want.

For example, if you are writing for a policy maker, have a strong call to action; if you are writing for the general public, tell a compelling story that touches both their heart and head, a story that is inspiring, raises awareness, has a message of hope and a call to action.

Make your story fun and shareable. Be direct and write your story in a way so that your reader has an “aha” moment.

Below are a few tips on how to go about writing a compelling story. Let’s not forget that a story is different from a report.

  • Use the inverted pyramid paradigm
  • Tell the story from the heart, showing impact of the activity on people’s lives
  • Write with passion
  • Craft catchy titles
  • Use quotes
  • Write short and simple sentences
  • Use headings and subheadings
  • Write maximum 500-800 words
  • Stories are not reports
  • Complement stories with pictures and captions
  • Make sure your message is clear, concise, concrete, correct, coherent and complete.

When you reach the point of sacrificing, without too much grief, your darlings – or your jargon and insider language – that is when you can consider yourself cured of the invasive “curse of knowledge” disease.

If you are amongst the brave ones out there willing to embrace “curse of knowledge rehab” and adopt story telling paradigm while at the same time sacrificing the intrusive darlings – keep track of your progress and share it with the rest of the community.

May the force be with you!!!


I am writing a series of guest blogs for @unsocial500 on how to boost engagement on social media. The purpose of the series is to share best practices and tips. The above blogpost first appeared on UN Social 500 site. If there is a specific topic you want more information and guidance on, please let me know so that I can put it in the pipeline :)

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Say no to spamming: Engage with others as you would like to be engaged with #socialmedia #spam

Photo credit: Ben Brown
Who amongst us has not been a victim of unsolicited mail, telephone calls, emails or posts showing on our social media timelines?

While there may be few lucky people out there who are oblivious to spamming, many more have  either experienced or practiced one or more form of spamming.

Bulk messaging
When was the last that as a communication professional or social media strategist you sent out messages with the same or similar content? When was the last time you cross-posted or received the same message from different networks?

Sharing undesired or excessive content
When was the last time you received unsolicited content? And when was the last time you pushed out unsolicited content to your network(s)?

Clickbaiting 
When was the last time you clicked on a link because the headline caught your attention to then be totally disappointed by the content of the article? When was the last time you created the coolest headline to entice your readers to click on the embedded link which did not quite match your headline?

We’ve all been victims of spamming and in our digital journey, may have also practiced spamming.

As social media strategists, to maximize the reach of our content, we may have:
  • pushed out similar type of content over multiple channels for a more or less prolonged period of time
  • created pre-canned tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts asking our networks to share these with their respective audience
  • reported live from events inundating cyberspace with podium images and content which is the contrary to soundbites
  • repeatedly promoted dull content

After practicing the above sins, we’ve sulked as our intentional or unintentional spamming resulted in a sharp fall in:
  • engagement - hardly any of our followers, let alone our influencer(s) engaged with the content
  • audience - many of our followers unfollowed or unfriended us and as a result
  • reach - if our average likes or retweets were in the hundreds, our spam content yielded no more than 10 likes or retweets

The digital space is not different than real life…… As such the saying “Do to others as you would have them do to you”….. holds true here as well……

Remember, “Engage with others as you would like to be engaged with”. 
  • Quality over quantity
  • Create compelling content, as this travels miles and miles and at speed of light
  • Nurture your solid and trusted followers/networks

So instead of spinning your wheels in creating content for the sake of creating content and pushing it out indiscriminately, invest in your network(s). 

To expand your digital foot print, create content that allows you to reach out to new unconverted groups and communities.

Remember at the end of the day, it is PEOPLE who make your content go viral. FOCUS on PEOPLE and less on process.


Next time someone spams you, remind them that for their content to go viral, it needs to resonate with the audience - you being one of them. Work with them and make their spam content salient and relevant. And once you’ve done so, celebrate putting another nail in the spam coffin!


I am writing a series of guest blogs for @unsocial500 on how to boost engagement on social media. The purpose of the series is to share best practices and tips. The above blogpost first appeared on UN Social 500 site. If there is a specific topic you want more information and guidance on, please let me know so that I can put it in the pipeline :)

Sunday, 13 November 2016

#Socialmedia metrics: Trashing “vanity metrics”, embracing engagement and behavioural change indicators #UNMetrics

Source: https://blog.bufferapp.com/social-media-metrics
In this month’s blogpost, I’m reaching out to the community to see if we can brainstorm to find relevant and meaningful indicators to assess the impact of our social media efforts.

We all know that in the development space, our success is measured by the impact we have on people’s lives. If you are an economist, you probably measure this in terms of income; if you are a sociologist you measure it in terms of well-being of a household; if you are a governance expert, you measure the effectiveness of institutions; and if you practice sustainable development, you measure all of the above and more.

Throughout my social media journey, I’ve been struggling to find a meaningful way of showing the impact of development-related social media efforts.

I’m not fully convinced that number of fans/followers, number of mentions; number of retweets and/or social shares tell the full impact story.

I consider the above as quantitative indicators – or what others call “vanity metrics”. These are not hard core engagement indicators. They do not shed light on behavioural change nor do they show the action of the user on any given piece of content.

Maybe there are folks out there who have cracked this nut. If so, please share your insights.

Bearing in mind that we can never get away from metrics, I would love to hear from our very own community whether the following indicators could help us have a better picture of the impact of our social media efforts:

  • how are the influencers in our field engaging with our content
  • are our followers taking action and/or inquiring about our work as a result of “reading” and “interacting” with our content
  • how are our followers curating our content
  • how is our audience complementing our content to generate new knowledge
  • how is our audience advocating on our behalf and/or advocating our cause
  • what is the evidence of behaviour change as a result of interacting and engaging with our content
  • who is providing salient, substantive and constructive comment, thus sparking new conversations
  • is the community raising issues and pushing us out of our comfort zone
  • what is the quality of original content we’re producing to respond to our follower’s needs and request

I am sure our collective wisdom and experience can help us crack this nut. So please, share your ideas and input. Let’s try and come up with a set of comprehensive indicators which really measure engagement and behaviour change.

To share your thoughts all you need to do is tweet with the #UNmetrics

Looking forward to your insights. Until then goodbye…..


I am writing a series of guest blogs for @unsocial500 on how to boost engagement on social media. The purpose of the series is to share best practices and tips. The above blogpost first appeared on UN Social 500 site. If there is a specific topic you want more information and guidance on, please let me know so that I can put it in the pipeline :)