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 Iâ€™ll mention the other two, what Iâ€™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.
Hereâ€™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:
- Capacity Development
Robert Chambers has written about the effects of these buzzwords (and their satanic progeny, acronyms) when they are first introduced and beyond. Iâ€™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 Iâ€™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 â€˜partnershipâ€™ 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 â€˜partnershipâ€™ 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 donâ€™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.