Thomson Reuters Foundation: Ethiopian Highlanders unleash traditional practices on a modern land scourge

Below is repost of an article I recently authored for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems:

Ethiopia is committed to restoring 15 million hectares of degraded land by 2030

In just a couple of weeks, farmers in the Ethiopian Highlands will have finished their harvest. In January, they will then embark on what could be dubbed ‘the restoration season’. Because the harvest is over, farmers are relatively free during the next few months, which makes it a perfect time for restoring the unique landscapes they depend on for food and income.

Scientists and government officials are collaborating with communities to test out new approaches to reversing land degradation – methods that might have potential to change the status of the entire highlands region from vastly degraded to successfully restored. Read more.


Can one woman stop climate change?

Future by Christiana Figueres, The New YorkerWhat’s this?

Well, it’s how Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), envisions the planet’s future: The straight line represents economic growth, the curved CO2 emissions.

According to Figueres, we’re right about at the tipping point where the second line starts to bend – we’re just about to figure out how to create economic growth while at the same time lowering carbon emissions. This is how we’d be able to halt climate change, and it is, frankly put, necessary to save the world.

At least that’s how Figueres sees it, and it’s what she hopes to convey to world leaders during the upcoming COP21 in Paris. And if you read one thing in the lead up to that meeting, let it be The New Yorker’s portrait of Figueres. It is an inspiring reminder of what’s at stake.


Learnings and Letdowns from the Copyediting Certificate Program at UCSD

I recently completed the University of California in San Diego’s copyediting certificate program. In online editing and writing communities, the program is touted as one of the best copyediting courses out there, and UCSD itself promises introduction to tools, techniques, and topics that ensure a successful career.

With expectations thus embellished, I enrolled about a year ago.

The program is available through UCSD’s web-based extension platform. It consists of four ten-week courses, two of which you can follow simultaneously. This means that you can complete the entire program in either nine months or one year (I did it in one year). Each course demands a time commitment of between six to ten hours a week. On top of that, the program is not cheap at $425 per course, plus books.

So, was it worthwhile?

Top Learnings

  • I learned a lot, particularly from the first course, Grammar Lab. While I felt I had a pretty good grasp of grammar before the course, it definitely filled in some gaps, and moreover it has enabled me to explain the grammar conventions behind my edits to others. Subsequent courses offered plenty of opportunity for practice and introduced some guiding principles that have made me a more confident editor.
  • I was introduced to resources, reference works, and communities that I was not previously familiar with and that I am certain will be helpful in the future. Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook is an invaluable reference, the CE-L listserv is brimming with advice and opportunities, and mnemonics like the one below made me laugh.
  • I found the academic level of this program to be very high. Clearly, instructors are knowledgeable, and quizzes and assignments require that you get through your readings and pay attention.
  • Completing the program does indeed take time. Especially the last course, Copyediting III, during which you continuously work to complete a heavy edit of a thirty-page document for the final exam, required many hours of work.
  • Being based outside the US, I had a hard time obtaining the required books. An unrelated trip to New York and an incredibly accommodating bookstore in Taipei were my saviors.
Hyperbole and a Half's Alot
Hyperbole and a Half’s mythical creature, the alot.

Top Letdowns

  • Reading materials, quizzes, and assignments were clearly recycled from previous years, which led to a suboptimal experience. For example, we were at one point asked to read a document on “the copyediting practices of the publishing industry today,” which turned out to be almost twenty years old. It was, of course, hopelessly outdated.
  • Despite promises of “ensuring a successful career,” the program very rarely touched on the career or business aspects of copyediting, which I think is a missed opportunity. However, UCSD does supposedly offer a course on editing as a business, but I haven’t seen it scheduled yet.
  • Taking a class online is obviously not the same as walking into a classroom—you don’t experience the same camaraderie or sense of community. Yet, I’ve followed other online courses during which this kind of intimacy was better approximated, through videoconferences, for example.

Final Score

In my opinion, UCSD’s copyediting certificate program does provide a very thorough, very instructive introduction to the copyediting discipline. After completing the program, I feel much better positioned to help clients with their editing needs. In addition, the program brought me closer to a field that I find both professionally and personally satisfying. I’d recommend this program to peers looking to build or improve their editing skills.

Watch: The Danger of Simple Stories

In his TedX talk, economist Tyler Cowen delivers some great insights into the dangers of telling simple stories.

While acknowledging that “to think in terms of stories is entirely human”, Cowen also claims, though not without irony, that every time you tell yourself a simple story “you are lowering your IQ”. That’s of course a too simple story in itself, but I agree that in storytelling it is important to look out for the risk of losing complexity.


7 Tips on 2D Kinetic Animation

Finally, I’m able to share something I’ve been working on for a long time: A 2D kinetic animation on lessons learned from more than a decade of water and food research by the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food:



The animation is produced by Room3, a Melbourne-based agency specialized in developing creative video solutions for non-profit organizations. I’ve contributed with input to concept, script, visual ideas, and project management.

The process from idea to product was long and more complex than I’d imagined. Based on my experience, I’ve written up seven tips on what to expect when embarking on a kinetic animation project:


1) Start Early

The production process takes a long time, partly because kinetic animation itself is time consuming, but also because of the many different steps involved: ideation, script writing, storyboarding, sketching, voiceover recording, music selection, and animation. I recommend starting the process at least six months before you need the final product.

2) Keep It Short and Simple

When we began considering a kinetic animation, it was because we wanted to communicate the main lessons from more than a decade of research in one message. My advice? Keep that message as short and simple as possible. During the production process, I felt that we continuously reduced, simplified, and streamlined our message. In hindsight, we could have simplified even more.

3) Allow Enough Time for Feedback

In the beginning of the production process, I—and my stakeholders, managers, team members, etc.—didn’t have the opportunity to review moving images. Rather, we provided feedback based on a script, sketches, and a storyboard. It was sometimes difficult to visualize the final product, and providing meaningful feedback required talking through the animation scene-for-scene, something which also took time.

4) Request Feedback from the Right People

From the outset, we scheduled several rounds of consultations that allowed us to request feedback from a large group of stakeholders, including top-level managers. Getting and documenting feedback from many different stakeholders early on in the process, while it was still possible to make changes, helped us to create support, buy-in, and ownership for the final message and product.

5) Hire a Professional Voice-Over Artist

This one was a bit of a surprise to me. As it turns out, recording a good voice-over is incredibly difficult. Even if you can book a professional studio, have an audio engineer on hand, and know someone with a charismatic voice, I recommend leaving this one to the professionals. Hiring a professional voice-over artist is worth the additional cost.

6) Toss What Doesn’t Work

Sometimes, we thought we had a great idea for an illustration or a turn of phrase, but in the end it just didn’t work well on audio, video, or both. We tossed a lot of initial ideas and sketches, and I feel that the final product benefitted from our heavy pruning.

7) Work with Creative People

Because I was so close to our material and message, it was sometimes difficult for me to convert a message into an image. How do you illustrate “ecosystem”? I found it hugely beneficial (and fun) to work with the creative people at Room3, who helped us come up with ideas such as ecosystems in light bulbs and fishermen in hourglasses.


The animation, Lessons from 10 Years of Water and Food Research: Quick Fixes Don’t Work, was developed for the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food—now the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Food and Ecosystems.

TED’s Chris Anderson Spills Beans: How to Give a Killer Presentation

TED Curator Chris Anderson wrote an essay on how to give a killer presentation for the June edition of the Harvard Business Review.

Anderson has lots of experience coaching TED Conference presenters on how to do better, and his essay — which I suggest you read in full here — is brimming with good advice for all kinds of storytellers. I nodded in recognition reading a lot of his points and added some notes to my own list of presentation “musts” (for example, stand still! Who knew?)

Here are my select cliffs notes for his essay:

  • “If you frame the talk as a journey [which you should], the biggest decisions are figuring out where to start and where to end.”
  • “The most engaging speakers do a superb job of very quickly introducing the topic, explaining why they care so deeply about it, and convincing the audience members that they should, too.”
  • “You need specific examples to flesh out your ideas.”
  • “Many of our best and most popular TED Talks have been memorized word for word. If you’re giving an important talk and you have the time to do this, it’s the best way to go.”

National Overview of Land Concessions in Lao PDR

I recently had the opportunity to, on behalf of SDC, interview Dr. Andreas Heinimann, who is a Senior Research Scientist at CDE and a lead author of the first-ever report to give a national overview of land concessions in Lao PDR.

I asked him if he thinks that too much land in the country is under concession, and I think he gave a great answer, like a true scientist:

Marianne: The report concludes that 1.1 million hectares, that’s five percent of the country’s total territory, is currently under concession. That sounds like a lot?

Andreas: So I think the five percent, 1.1 million hectares or five percent of territory, is a figure, but I don’t think it’s an important figure. I think for me, one of the most relevant comparisons is the comparison with the rice production. Even though I knew it, I still find it striking: There is currently more land granted in concessions, than there is land being cultivated for rice. You can get people’s attention with that kind of number.

You can read the full interview on SDC’s blog.

The Concessions and Leases in the Lao PDR – Taking Stock of Land Investments Report is a result of collaboration between SDC, CDE (Centre for Development and Environment, GIZ (German Cooperation), and the Lao Ministry for Natural Resources and Environment.

Storytelling Training for Lao Disabled Women

“One of the ways to reincarnate is to tell your story,” wrote Spalding Gray.

Storytelling, of course, is an effective communications tool. It can be used to make blogs, reports, books, movies, interviews, and just about anything more engaging, more memorable, and more moving. But another remarkable aspect of storytelling, which is perhaps sometimes overlooked, is the power it holds to let us shape the story of our own lives.


LDWDC storyteller


Last week, I taught a one-day storytelling workshop at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center in Vientiane. The center, run by disabled women for disabled women, aims to give its students the knowledge, capacity, and skills they need to gain employment, generate income, help themselves, and contribute to the development of a sustainable society.


LDWDC staff teaching storytelling


One objective of the storytelling training was to answer the question: “What do we tell a potential donor to gain their support when we do so many different things and have so many different needs?” In other words, what is our story — as an institution?


LDWDC storyteller 2

But moreover, the training was also about giving these women the power to tell their own stories about what it is like to be a woman and disabled in Lao PDR. By developing and sharing our own personal stories, we have the power to determine how we are perceived by others. Taking control over our stories can help us escape preconceived notions and prejudices.


The Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center is located outside of town, near the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge, and is open seven days a week. Visitors are welcome — also to stop by their small shop and pick up weavings or paper products produced by the center’s students.