The Tyranny Of The Development Lexicon



When ideas fail, words come in very handy.

 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We live in an age when noisy posturing too often substitutes for reasoned debate and brash opinion trumps hard fact. The thread of the argument often disappears in a blizzard of gee-whiz statistics, acronyms, and catch phrases in interviews with eminent folks of all kinds. Yet the words used to describe them-inclusive growth, environmental sustainability, poverty eradication- are rendered meaningless and over worn by overuse. There’s a lot of jargon in the social sector. People talk about stakeholder management and capacity building and theories of change.

Capacity-building. Community-driven action. Enabling populations. Collaboration. Participatory action. Anti-oppression. These are just some examples of a multitude of terms regularly thrown around by professionals in the nonprofit sector. These buzzwords can be reasonably categorized as industry speak, or just plain old jargon. We should not hide behind jargon and high-sounding phrases if they are not true.

Paper is substituted for action. Conferences are substituted for work. Perquisites are substituted for truly earned rewards — and there are no penalties for corruption, laziness and divisive rabble-rousing. Adept at diplomacy and wordplay, they obscure the real concerns behind a fog of jargon and euphemism No wonder the villages distrust all these urbanised gentry who jeep themselves into the village, complete with polyester pants and thermos flasks of boiled water, exhorting them to produce fewer babies and more food at exploitive prices, for the benefit of their urban brethren. They deliver these messages to the village, and hastily jeep their way back to their urban environment. It inevitably means they shy away from campaigning and solidarity-based activity.  As the legendary philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche

put it:”All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth”

I have myself witnessed during my long engagement with the poor that  development experts   live in a planet of their own – in a total disconnect with the average citizen – dominated by summits, conclaves and conferences- each one considered an important saloon for designing some unique and path breaking solutions.. The same big names on podiums, with lofty aspirations and oversized ambitions preening and drooling the same set of figures, the same weary phrases reverberating the halls

And if we want to move the needle on tough problems, recycling jargon and reusing the same old frameworks is not good enough. It is easy to dish out lectures on development finance; but it is an arduous experience to practice it. Any debate about the economic policy for the poor is usually tortuous, long wended and insular. There is a tendency to stay away from the common ground for common goals, for the development of a desperately poor people. More than anything it obscures issues

The word development itself, Gilbert Rist observes, has become a ‘modern shibboleth, an unavoidable password’, which comes to be used ‘to convey the idea that tomorrow things will be better, or that more is necessarily better’. But, as he goes on to note, the very taken-for-granted quality of ‘development’ – and the same might be said of many of the words that are used in development discourse – leaves much of what is actually done in its name unquestioned.  Many of the words that have gained the status of buzzwords in development are (or once were) what the philosopher W.B. Gallie   termed ‘essentially contested concepts’: terms that combine general agreement on the abstract notion that they represent with endless disagreement about what they might mean in practice.   Development’s buzzwords gain their purchase and power through their vague and euphemistic qualities, their capacity to embrace a multitude of possible meanings, and their normative resonance. The work that these words do for development is to place the sanctity of its goals beyond reproach.

The lexicon of development contains a number of code-words that are barely intelligible to those beyond its borders. They are part of an exclusive and fast-changing vocabulary. These words capture one of the qualities of buzzwords: to sound ‘intellectual and scientific’, beyond the understanding of the lay person, best left to ‘experts’.  Some have their origin in the academy, their meanings transformed as they are put to the service of development. Among them social capital and gender are   examples, with applications far distant from the theoretical debates with which they were originally associated.  Similarly empowerment is a term that has perhaps the most expansive semantic bandwidth.

Very often, these seminars resonate with buzzwords like empowerment participation, sustainability and marginalisation and end in copious policy statements. Buzzwords, fuzzwords, different words, different contexts, different actors, and different struggles call for different strategies: some combination of any or all of those outlined here may be required at some times and for some purposes. Resilience’ is probably the sexiest   buzzword in development discourse. But as the r popularity of dome of them has grown, so has criticism of the use of ill-defined terminology in a sector that makes tall claims of transparency and accountability. Resilience as an idea is not new.  . Development communications must purge the meaningless jargon used to gloss over, qualify or even glorify outcomes.

These starry eyed academics create some perceived happiness, empowerment and glory by donning powerful words. Some of these words are so strong and serious that they appear to cloak the whole issue  in an aura of ‘it needs no further questioning’ .g All the appealing metaphors of NGO websites and academo-best-sellers—“the poverty trap,” “the ladder of development”—go limp under the magnifying glass of actually being   

Discussions and seminars on poverty hunger and starvation are organised   over glitzy parties at swanky hotels. I had a quick eye for vanity and I would perceive the frequent incongruities between the way people talked and the realities of the situation. Much disservice has been done to the cause of rural development on account of this schizoid approach: alternating engagement and withdrawal. It is easy to dish out lectures; but it is an arduous experience to practice it. Any debate about the economic policy for the poor is usually tortuous, long wended and insular. There is a tendency to stay away from the common ground for common goals, for the development of a desperately poor people. More than anything it obscures issues. To cut through the fog, we have to lend our ear to the voice of the people who are the stakeholders.”God gives us nuts but he doesn’t crack them,” says an Irish proverb. The world is not a finished product. We contribute to it by our sincere work to make it more perfect and ideal. We work to bring out a new earth. This new earth will arrive when our works promote a better order in human society, uphold human dignity and promote love, equality, freedom, beauty and creativity etc. In the process we also perfect ourselves and thus our work becomes a means for our self-actualisation.

The least we can do is examine the vocabulary we use and seek to speak plainly and honestly. As Primo Levi reckons in The Drowned and the Saved: “Without a profound simplification the world around us would be an infinite, undefined tangle that would defy our ability to orient ourselves and decide upon our actions … We are compelled to reduce the knowable to a schema.”

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at [email protected]


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