What We Talk About When We Talk About Aid

If the Caporegime has ownership of the book, the vig is sustainable.

"If the Caporegime has ownership of the book, the vig is sustainable."

Language matters. It is not simply a way of expressing ideas, of making concrete statements out of abstract thoughts. Language takes on a life of its own. Catch-phrases can become shorthand for complex concepts. Words can take on an importance independent of the ideas they are associated with.

The way we talk about aid and development has concrete effects on the funding of development work, the policies we use and the ways in which we assess them. The language of development has practical impacts through three main mechanisms: rhetoric; the use of catch-phrases and shorthand; and obfuscation. Though I’ll mention the other two, what I’m most concerned with here is the second of these: how development practitioners routinely evoke and apply complex concepts using shorthand, and the real effects these terms have on development policy.

Here’s a list of phrases much beloved in the development profession, so much so they read like a sure-fire winner in the International Development Bingo game:

  • Sustainable
  • Inclusive
  • Partnership
  • Capacity Development
  • Gender-sensitive
  • Ownership

Robert Chambers has written about the effects of these buzzwords (and their satanic progeny, acronyms) when they are first introduced and beyond. I’m more interested in their impact after they have become the dusty furniture of development vernacular. About 90 per cent of the project proposals and agreements I’ve read in the last three years have included at least three of the phrases above. Recently, all six have been cropping up in most.

Chambers argued is that in many cases, the function of such jargon is to obscure as much as to illuminate. This is the obfuscation argument. We say ‘partnership’ a lot in development, but the relationship between donor and recipient is absurdly unequal, and no donor has yet attempted to put themselves under the scrutiny and power of a Government in any meaningful way. He argues that by saying ‘partnership’ often enough and loudly enough, people will start to believe that there really is partnership. This is partly true, but my concern is different; these catch-phrases contribute to our failure to address the issues they relate, they don’t merely mask our unwillingness to do so. This ultimately stems from the fact that these concepts are complex and can be excruciatingly difficult to actually implement, facts that are not in any way reflected in their common usage and easy phrasing.

One can easily talk about the importance of sustainability, but for this to have any real meaning one needs to be concrete about exactly what it means and how it can be achieved. Breaking it down into a few of the more important elements, a careful consideration of sustainability must address the following issues:

  • In the context of an aid dependent Government with limited local revenue collection, any expensive undertaking should either directly lead to or be matched by an increase in revenue collection to ensure its viability in the absence of aid
  • If the activity requires staff with special skills or training, some mechanisms must be in place for the retention or recruitment of such staff for a long time period, which will require analysis of the labour market
  • The Government department, or local authority or local collective who will be expected to manage the activity in the long term must be vested in the outcomes and goals of the project from the beginning and must want to continue it in the absence of financial and technical support
  • The nature of the activity must be such that it can continue reaping benefits indefinitely, or can be adapted by the local team to ensure that it evolves to suit changing circumstances

Actually coming up with a plan to achieve sustainability in a manner that addresses all of these issues is very difficult. Where project proposals and analytical papers attempt to do so, they are often incomplete and even when powered by goodwill, they usually fall short of presenting a coherent and convincing plan for how sustainability will actually be achieved – or alternatively, an argument as to why it is not necessary. One contributory factor is that, despite a genuine concern with sustainability, the ubiquity of this convenient shorthand leads to an equally shorthand way of thinking: instead of looking at each element of what constitutes sustainability and building this in from project design, the project is first designed and then ‘sustainability’ issues are addressed ex-post. The way we talk about aid and sustainability encourages a way of thinking in which the concept is an add-on to the general programme for development, rather than one of the founding principles upon which support must be based. We talk about aid, and then talk about how it must be sustainable and so on; we do not generally start with the idea that aid as a concept must incorporate sustainability, inclusiveness and other such characteristics. We take the structure of aid as a constant and try to work sustainability around it.

In other cases, our constant use of the shorthand encourages analytical laziness. They have become forms that we all broadly know the meaning of, and have become so tired of, that we tend not to subject them to the scrutiny they deserve. On the one hand, cynical old hands hear ‘inclusive’ or ‘gender-sensitive’ and roll their eyes and start plotting an escape route from the meeting. On the other, planners and implementers fall into the trap of thinking that because they’re concerned with ‘sustainability’ and they’ve mentioned it 342 times in a 1000 word document, they’re pursuing it. Both responses have the same effect: the use of the catch-phrases is greeted without much critical analysis, with the predictable result that concepts are referenced and co-opted into policies and programmes that do not service them in any real way. I don’t think I’ve seen a project proposal in all my time advising Governments on aid effectiveness that seriously considers how the activity will survive without donor support for more than a matter of one or two years. Certainly none include funds to go back after two or three years and see whether the impact has been lasting.

I’ve so far focused on examples where a concept is ill-defined in its shorthand, leading to problems in applying it. There is an almost opposite problem when a highly technical concept is defined and given a shorthand that intimidates certain audiences into silence. One example seems to be Structural Adjustment. I won’t go into too much depth about this, because I’m not sure how deep the problem goes, but it seems to me that there is a huge amount of academic and high level debate about the merit or otherwise in the bundle of policies that constitute structural adjustment. Despite this, once we get to the country level and non-economists are confronted with the term, they go into their shell. This is significant, because when economics falls down it’s often precisely because there is not enough consideration of the insights other disciplines offers us. If non-economists withdraw from the debate, particularly when they are in-country and well qualified to discuss how the policy bundle might be modified (or indeed why it should be scrapped) in a specific context, then the quite intrusive and high risk policies go forward without adequate reflection.

At the beginning of the post I also mentioned one other avenue through which words gain power to affect development and our priorities: rhetoric. The use of powerful rhetoric is normally aimed at stirring up emotions, and its use in development is no exception. It’s not confined to the highest levels and the best speakers, though, and is often used to either promote or tear down a development policy or initiative without invoking a substantial debate of ideas. An example of this came in a recent debate on development policy, the battle royale between Easterly, Sachs and Moyo about the Dead Aid arguments. In his highly-charged argument, Sachs accused Moyo of being ‘cruel’. Without getting into the merits of their positions on aid, Moyo’s argument was a rational one about sustainability and the need to focus on the bigger picture of development, and Sachs’ description wasn’t as silly as it sounds; he was making the point that there is an argument for focusing on the immediate benefits (he’d also argue that his approaches also have lasting results). However, by resorting to the emotive language he used, Sachs (unintentionally, probably) moved us back to the role of being saviours, there to save the Africans. If one declines an opportunity to make a rapid impact in favour of playing for longer term gain, one becomes morally questionable. The problems with arguing this way are manifold, but the two obvious ones are firstly that we are once again putting ourselves as the principal players in African development and history, which denies their agency; and secondly, it invests the debate with a moral/emotional dimension, whereby ones character is under question for taking opposing views in what is a hotly debated subject with no clear answers yet. This doesn’t help us get to the answers, but makes it more difficult to us to debate the issues clearly.

I’ve talked a lot about language in this post (hmm), but what do we do about it? The first thing, as anyone at AA will tell you, is to admit that you have a problem. We need to start addressing these issues when they come up, rather than ignoring them. Quite often we don’t debate ‘sustainability’ or ‘ownership’ because we broadly know what they mean, or we’re tired of hearing about them. We cannot afford to do this, because the ideas we are talking about are important. Rather, we need to throw self-consciousness to one side and be the irritant in the meeting who asks ‘what does this mean here? And how will you really do it? Do you have a plan? Can we see it?’ We might annoy our colleagues, but that’s the lesser of the evils on offer. Language has independent content, but this content is changeable. Today, the catch-phrases of development may be hurting our chances of progress; but if we’re careful about how they are used, and we call out our colleagues on loose use of these catch-phrases, they can become positives in the future.

(I now await linguistic pedants to call me on the loose use of language in this post).

One thought on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Aid

  1. Lee

    July 29, 2009 at 12:17pm

    Yes! We should start some sort of campaign. Get Easterly on it.

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