De-jargoning the development discourse

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You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.

-Lee Iacocca

We live in an age where noisy posturing often substitutes reasoned debate and brash opinion trumps hard facts. The thread of logic often disappears in a blizzard of gee-whiz statistics, acronyms and catchphrases that are liberally sprinkled by our contemporary crop of intellectuals. It is virtually impossible nowadays to avoid the torrent of clichés and buzzwords, which time and time again keep assailing our ears in professional as well as personal interactions. The provenance of both is easily discernible. For example, in science: “A window of opportunity” (from NASA’s reference to a launch window). Or, in sports: “Step up to the plate” (to move near the plate to strike the ball which is pitched in baseball).

A variety of eggheads and starry-eyed academics in their ivory towers spray jargon like confetti in their theories .Some of these catchwords appear to cloak the whole issue in an aura of “it needs no further questioning.” But much of this bloating swirl of executive flourish is empty rhetoric. All the appealing metaphors on websites and in academic works which are so heavily-dropped in conclaves —“the poverty trap”, “the ladder of development” and “ground-breaking innovation —   go limp under the magnifying glass.

Buzzwords are normally a refuge of the Western-educated elite. Buzzwords have limited vocabulary life and can be rendered meaningless by overuse. Capacity-building, inclusive growth, environmental sustainability, poverty eradication, community-driven action, collaboration, participatory action, anti-oppression… these are just some examples of a multitude of terms regularly thrown around by professionals. Like a tribe obsessed with buzzwords, elitists beguile themselves and their audience with clichés like neo-colonialism, academic-imperialism and such other resonant phrases. They have to be intensely wrung for meaning. When words are hung to dry out of context, it then becomes fair game for anyone who wants to fill-in meaning to create mischief. Buzzwords are a byproduct of a new intellectual culture where conferences are substitutes for work, paperwork is substituted for action and perquisites are the substitute for truly earned rewards.

Adept at wordplay, some ‘experts’ obscure real concerns behind a fog of jargon and euphemism. As the legendary philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche puts it: “All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” Experts live on a planet of their own — usually in total disconnect with the average citizen and their common issues — dominated by summits, conclaves and conferences. Each one is considered an important saloon for designing some unique and/or path-breaking solutions.

Laptop-wielding mentors serenade and strut their stuff on the conference stage releasing epigrams like white doves. If we want to move the needle on tough problems, recycling jargon and reusing the same old frameworks will never be good enough. It is easy to dish out lectures but it is harder to put in practice solution-based models and still harder to practice what you think. Any debate about an economic policy which also takes care of the poor, for example, is usually tortuous, long-winded and insular. There is a tendency to stay away from the common ground for common goals. Most participants avoid speaking their mind. Their main concern is their own work-life balance. Speeches are littered with the same old boring epithets — “long-term economic plan” and the groans which accompany it. Saying we need a strong economy isn’t enough, so the new marker for economic success is “inclusive” growth. Try to work inclusive, inclusion and other variations of the word into conversation to show that you’re in tune with the zeitgeist.

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”. However, as he goes on to note, the very taken-for-granted quality of “development” and many of the words used in the development discourse leaves much of what is actually done in its name unquestioned. Policy makers keep using the word ‘holistic’ liberally the way environmentalists use the word ‘sustainable’.

Many words that gained the status of buzzwords are what the philosopher WB Galie termed “essentially contested concepts”. These are terms that combine general agreement on the abstract notion that they represent with endless disagreement about what they might mean in practice. Buzzwords normally 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 is to place the sanctity of a discussion beyond reproach. In a recent review of CVs of prospective employees in the UK, “specialized” took the top spot in the list of phrases used, making an appearance in nearly half a million bio-data, closely followed by “leadership” and “experienced”. It seems we’re also keen to show our zest for our jobs, with words like “successful”, “passionate”, and “enthusiastic” all making the top 10.

We use corporate ‘jibber-jabber’ to make something obvious sound more complicated and smarter than it really is. It is difficult to comprehend what lurks beneath. Worst of all, many use pretentious jargon such as attitudinal judgmentality, degasification, symbiotic linkage and splinterisation. We use them to make the obvious and straightforward sound cerebral and exciting.

Meetings have now degenerated into a quagmire of nonsensical verbal piffle. Popular phrases such as “think outside the box”, which dates back to the early 70s or “I may have a window for you”, used by busy, arrogant managers, are the most worn out and fatigued phrases. They can at best provide a periodic gust of corporate hot air in chilled boardrooms.

The buzzword lexicon contains a number of code words which have an encumbered nuance and are barely intelligible to those beyond the borders of subject specialists. They capture one of the qualities of buzzwords: To sound “intellectual and scientific”, beyond the understanding of the layperson, and   leave it best   to ‘experts’ to make sense of it.

Some have their meanings transformed as they are put to the service of dialogue and debate. 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, seminars on development resonate with buzzwords like participation, sustainability and marginalisation and end in copious policy statements. As the popularity of some 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. Development communications must purge meaningless jargon used to gloss over, qualify or even glorify outcomes. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has summed it very pithily When ideas fail, words come in very handy “.

Discussions and seminars on poverty, hunger and starvation are organised at swanky hotels. Much disservice has been done to the cause of rural development on account of the verbose fog that envelopes such conferences. The entire development sector needs ‘rightsizing’ so that we do way with these revenue guzzlers; it will ensure that projects   become ‘sustainable’ and ‘scalable’ and can have a real ‘impact’.

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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