9 development phrases we hate (and suggestions for a new lexicon)

By Weh Yeoh, Brendan Rigby and Allison Smith

Every sector, discipline and tribe develops its own language, its own secret code that only those in the know can understand. Law, medicine, air traffic controllers, the lyrics of Katy Perry, ‘The Wire’. The aid and development sector is not immune, and a cursory glance at the acronym page of any report can feel overwhelming. If Scrabble allowed acronyms, aid workers would probably win every time. IMF, FAO, ILO, WTO, IAEA, UPU, UNWTO, WMO, WIPO. You couldn’t be blamed if you thought LMFAO was actually an international development agency whose tagline is ‘I’m sexy and I know it‘. Indeed, Land Management and Financial Agricultural Organization (trademark) sounds quite legitimate.

But, the lexicon of aid and development goes well beyond acronyms. Bill Easterly, whose own name is probably part of this lexicon, did a sampling through Twitter of decoding aid and development jargon. The ‘AidSpeak Dictionary‘, while very funny and tongue-in-cheek, is also quite poignant and close to the heart. For example, Ed Carr (otherwise known as EC in development circles), defined ‘participation’ as “the right to agree with preconceived projects or programs”. We are all very familiar with these terms, often saying them using the hand quotations gesture, a roll of the eyes and a knowing smile when speaking to friends, but at the same time, using them quite seriously when writing proposals, concept notes and reports. Are there alternatives?

Here, we list the 9 development phrases that we particularly hate, and open suggestions for a new lexicon. Voting for new suggestions can be done in a Google Docs Drive form at the very bottom of this post. We want your suggestions to help destroy these old, meaningless buzzwords and help to create a shiny set of new, meaningless buzzwords. Without further ado – let’s get proactive!

 

1. In the field

How it is used.

“Sorry, I can’t Skype that day. I’ll be in the field and internet connectivity is notoriously bad.”

Why we hate it.

“In the field” seems to suggest that there is some important dichotomy to what you do in country versus out of country. Or even what you do in the headquarters in the city, versus what you do out in the project sites. The reality is that the dichotomy is at best, fuzzy.

It also romanticises the nature of visits to projects. It makes aid and development workers sound like explorers, or more accurately, Indiana Jones. There’s nothing romantic or adventurous about staying in hotels, using their wifi, and being driven around in a 4WD.

New suggestions (vote at the end of this post).

  • Visiting projects
  • Suffering from per diemitis
  • Out of the office
  • On a work trip
Indy was understandably perturbed that the hotel was charging $5 an hour to use their wifi.

2. Beneficiaries

How it is used.

“Aid and development, as it stands, involves a triangular relationship between the donor, the NGO and, for lack of a better word, beneficiaries.” WhyDev, 2012.

Why we hate it.

It’s passive. It’s reductive. It’s patronising.

Sure, working in aid and development is about improving the lives of those in need. And sure, they receive a benefit. But labeling them as beneficiaries seems to suggest that that is all that they do. Put a hand out and have their lives improved.

Thinking of people this way completely ignores the agency that they have in creating positive change for themselves. It also sounds like ‘fisheries’, which is ironic, considering the similar relationship between donors and beneficiaries and that of fishermen and fisheries. “Give a donor one project, and feed him benefisheries for one day. Teach a donor to scale-up, and you will feed him benefisheries for a life time”.

New suggestions (vote at the end of this post).

  • People
  • Contributors
  • People aid/development is targeting

 

3. Developing countries

How it is used.

Wikipedia.

Why we hate it.

Thinking of countries as developing is far too simplistic. It puts them on a scale from “less developed” to “more developed”, where the ultimate goal is to be closer to our end of the scale, and further from theirs. And trust us, being closer to this end means being more like the Kardashians. No one wants that.

By the way we also hate Global South, poor countries, and Third World.

New suggestions (vote at the end of this post).

  • Majority world
  • Referring to specific countries
  • Using terms that have clear parameters and meanings, such as ‘Least Developed Countries’
  • Just don’t generalise, ever

 

4. Capacity building

How it is used.

“Build staff capacity on community based development approaches!” – Community Mobilisation Advisor job vacancy.

Why we hate it.

It’s extremely misleading. As Makarand Sahasrabuddhe said: “Many a time capacity building is just a euphemism for cramming 30 people in a room for a few days and trying to kill them with power-points and flipcharts and group work (that also takes care of the ‘participation’).”

Generally, we think people who use the term “capacity building” with a straight face should be crammed into a room for a few days and killed with really on-the-money Makarand Sahasrabuddhe quotes. That will sort them out.

New suggestions (vote at the end of this post).

  • Asking important questions
  • Listening sessions
  • Trainings

 

5. Livelihoods

How it is used.

The Livelihoods Development (LD) programme carries out field projects and related support activities that develop sustainable livelihoods and reduce poverty using bamboo and rattan in order to help support the achievement of national and regional development objectives. (That must be some crazy-ass bamboo and rattan!)

Why we hate it.

According to Samuel Johnson’s greatest invention, Google, the definition of livelihoods is: “A means of securing the necessities of life”. In the general development context though, livelihoods is (possibly incorrectly) used to describe a way of helping people to generate income. The problem with the word livelihoods is that it has overtones of subsistence. It hints that poor people should only have enough just to live – not to thrive. As Kate Magro says: “Why is it that Westerners have careers, jobs, employment opportunities and everyone else has a livelihood?”

New suggestions (vote at the end of this post).

  • Creating/building jobs
  • Thrivelihoods
  • Work
  • Jobs
  • Employment

 

6. On Mission

How it is used.

“Can you take some time out for a coffee that afternoon or are you on mission?”

Why we hate it.

Like “in the field”, “on mission” has some nasty undertones associated it with it that make you think that the phrase belongs in some leathery old hardcover book, not in the 21st Century. Apart from having that delightful Morricone song in our heads whenever someone says they are “on mission”, we also picture a bearded Robert De Niro leaping out of a misty forest, unsheathing his foil from his scabbard.

Mr De Niro had a long and illustrious career with Engineers Without Borders, before turning to Hollywood.

Taking our cues from Mr. De Niro above, we’d like to take a wild stab in the dark and guess that the phrase “on mission” originally derives from the word: missionaries. So, not exactly a great look for the modern-day development worker then.

New suggestions.

  • See: “in the field”.

 

7. Local

How it is used.

We refer to ‘local’ when describing someone or something as different from ourselves. ‘Local people’ are the Other. The exotic. They live in ‘developing countries’, need aid and development through livelihood, education and health programs and generally make poor life choices. And, they usually live in poverty.

“During the occupation, western governments and development agencies have failed to invest enough in local people to enable them to earn lasting livelihoods” (Financial Times, 30 July 2012)

Why we hate it.

It is indicative of the discourse generally when we talk about development issues and people in other countries. In countries like Australia, U.S. and Canada (see, it’s easy – we referred to three individual countries and didn’t say ‘Western’) ‘local’ has come to be associated with terms like organic, healthy, sustainable. We have new words like ‘locavore‘. If we use this term ‘locavore’ in a development context, does it refer to foreign aid workers who only eat locally produced food or locally produced people? Better yet, most ‘local people’ can be considered locavores, because they only eat food that is locally produced. In the development context, ‘local’ is not associated with these same terms. It infers ‘colour’, distance and lack of capability. But, again, like many of these terms, it is reductive and generalised and gives no respect to diversity, identity or power relationships. Who are ‘local people’ in Ghana? Who are ‘local people’ in Cambodia? Bugger if we know.

New suggestions (vote at the end of this post).

  • National/s
  • Use the proper identity of the people you are referring to

 

8. Strategic

How it is used.

“We have developed a strategy to strategically engage key stakeholders in a participatory process for our strategic plan. I used ‘strategically’ enough in that sentence to show how seriously we’re taking this, right?”

Why we hate it.

It’s overused to the point of having lost any meaning it once had.

New suggestions.

None. It doesn’t require a replacement. Let’s just assume that whenever we’re creating a plan, working on a project, or engaging stakeholders, we’re doing so in a thoughtful, intelligent way, and we don’t need to explicitly say so by tacking a “strategic” onto the activity.

 

9. Trainings

How it is used.

“I’m on mission this week in the field to delivery some strategic trainings to some local people.

Why we hate it.

Trainings seems to suggest a one way flow of ideas and information. Party A trains Party B. If they’re lucky, Party A might learn something new, such as how to say: “Where is the bathroom?” in another language.

But in reality, trainings don’t occur this way (or at least they shouldn’t). One of the most satisfying things about continually doing these activities is that you learn something new every time you do them.

Point in case: One of us (Weh) conducted two similar “trainings” on barriers that people with disabilities commonly face – one in China, another in Cambodia. Whereas the Chinese participants tended to identify physical barriers such as lack of ramps and rails as most disabling, people in Cambodia identified discrimination as the major barrier that people with disabilities faced there. A wonderful opportunity for the “trainer” to learn from the “trainee”.

New suggestions (vote at the end of this post).

  • Workshop (we know this is used sometimes, but could be used more)
  • Discussion
  • Information exchange (or infochange)
  • Capacity building

 

Tell us below – how would you shape the language of development so that it didn’t drive you crazy? What other development buzzwords get up your nose? Let us know in the comments!

(after filling in the survey below you will have a chance to view previous responses so far)

[gform form=’https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dC1rRnVSS2ItVEM5UGRhQ0o4ZDZZMlE6MQ’]

 

Update 19th September, 2012

Be sure to check out the latest results to the survey in our next post here. The findings may shock you.

 

 

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The WhyDev writing team consists of Brendan, Weh, Rachel, Jennifer & Laurie. Check out more about the team on the "About Us" page.

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54 thoughts on “9 development phrases we hate (and suggestions for a new lexicon)”

  1. I think one point is VERY important, and I can tell it because I am not an English mother language (you guessed, didn’t you?) : each of these expressions are used also in a patchwork-mix within other languages, loosing even more their original meaning. And very often to use them is synonim of “Hey I am cool!”. So, who is using them with us poor neglected “not coming from the anglosaxon word” is very often patronising. But, if I have this feeling (beeing an Italian well educated journalist volunteering and writing a gender empowerement website partly in English), what would be the feeling if I was actually a “local”?
    But at the same time, the use of a few ordinary expressions is also helping us to understand and speak, without going into vocabulary problems.
    Therefore, this matter of the language is in fact an important matter of CULTURAL OPPRESSION and CULTURAL COMPROMISE, of arrogance and equality, that could carry into a long essay!.
    In conclusion, it is not much what terms we hate, but the use it is made of them. If I will ever have some spare time, I want to try to suggest translations in Italian of French. It could be funny to find out how much some expressions have lost their original meaning (that was not so wrong) and become a status symbol.
    What do you think? By the way, thanks for doing Whydev!

  2. True that is!!

    “As Makarand Sahasrabuddhe said: “Many a time capacity building is just a euphemism for cramming 30 people in a room for a few days and trying to kill them with power-points and flipcharts and group work (that also takes care of the ‘participation’).”

  3. Coming from someone who has only entered the development/aid world after 10 years in corporate, I spent my first 6 months trying to figure out what a “focal point” was, and exactly how the word “awareness” could be used as a verb or noun i.e. the child protection focal point is going to conduct an awareness” …wah?!

  4. Confusing – Trainings is offered as an alternate for Capacity Building (4) but appears on the list at 9, where Capacity Building is offered as a better alternative???

  5. Ah…… I thought development was all about putting lolly in the form or euros or dollars into the mits of those not collecting fat fees – they use the term per diem to cover it up to look & feel nice…disburse the budget on time – you are a star !!

  6. Another buzzword that is driving me crazy is “integration”! The development community in its wisdom has invested in vertical health programs as long-term interventions for decades and is only now seeing the need/value/benefit/cost-efficiency of integrated health services. While it may be necessary to make initial investment in establishing a particular health service, it need to be done with the long view in mind–of the service’s place in the bigger picture of the health care offerings and systems, thus guiding the short-term and medium-term interventions wisely towards that end.

    Another word the drives me around the bend if “community mobilization”…Pu-leeze! That’s another comment/conversation.

  7. There is no such word as ‘trainings’ – you can have a training programme consisting of a number of sessions or a number of training sessions (which I am now going to call infochanges because that it fab!) but you do not have trainings

  8. Really funny! I also hate the word “mission”. Indiano Jones travelling business class to attend a 2-day conference in a 4-star hotel!!! Some organisations also use Travel Duty Assignement or TDY (another acronym) which I think is even worst. Concerning “capacity building”, there is a contradiction between 4 and 9!

    1. It’s humour, in some cultures. The joke is that they are contradictory and each suggest each other as an alternative. I know, in some countries or cultures that is not funny. But I thought that was really funny …and I did not laugh out loud. I just chuckled. But that does not mean it was funnier than, say, other kinds of humour.

  9. Love the humour, thank you! I must say I have felt like Indiana Jones myself a few times! ;-) Thankfully not like De Niro have not had to go through as much pain or trauma on “mission”. However if you’ve been in this long enough you know that was goes around comes around. Words are redefined, reused, changed and modified regularly. Whether talking about race, politics, religion, development we use one word during one generation, then change, then come back because the original meaning was better, etc. However, I still think it is good to stop and think why and how we use the words we use and re-evaluate whether they should be used at all.

  10. You are either in the “jargon only exists because they are the only words that accurately reflect the true meaning” camp, or the “jargon only exists to make those who use it feel like they are part of an elite and very special club” camp…What is wrong with using plain English/French/Spanish/Hindi/khmer/Swahili etc?

  11. My “favorite worst” (?) term is indeed, “capacity-building”, especially when it’s “institutional capacity building”> I’m always hounding staff to be more specific about what they’re doing in this regard, what their objectives are, what does “success” look like, etc. But I am most incensed by acronyms. On the project I worked most recently in West Africa, we worked in two languages, eight countries, and six agricultural “value chains” (I also don’t like phrase — how about just “products”?). Needless to say, each language in each country in each product had a different set of acronyms, not to mention those used by the USG and USAID. :)

  12. what I have voted/suggested (more suggested than voted) is already in use in UNDP since several years, because with the same spirit UNDP has rejected that “old set of new, meaningless buzzwords” to replace them with “a shiny set of new, meaningless buzzwords”. As other comments suggest, to make the exercise really actual you should on what’s trendy now: sustainable, green, resilient, etc.

  13. Then do all of these words translate? If we make up new words to make ourselves feel better (Thrivelihoods, ugh.) does this mean that we once again disengage with our intended targets because they don’t know what the heck those words mean? Secondly, looking at the list of issues about why there is hate around these words, and I can’t help but wondering if we are hating the word because the implementation of it has failed and cynicism has set in, and if instead of changing our lexicon, we change our implementation processes, and make the words mean something again.

  14. Very good post and interesting discussion. I’m from the technical assistance/development cooperation “industry” rather than aid/development, but we share much of the same technobabble-waffle and jargon. In the projects I have led, it was a firing offence (only half-jokingly) to use terms like synergy (because it almost never happens – only the opposite), SWOT Analysis (an excuse to avoid doing serious thinking by producing a series of meaningless lists) and cluster strategy (another excuse for avoiding thinking – so-called experts talk about developing clusters when they clearly have not read, let alone understood, Michael Porter’s original – and useful – ideas here, and confuse a cluster with a collection, as in, there are a lot of pubs in Ballygonowhere so we have the basis of a cluster strategy). I also hate the use of nouns as verbs, as in scoping, impacting, etc.

    Anyway, well done guys for airing an important subject in a witty and intelligent way. The use and abuse of language is hugely important (see George Orwell and many others) so I don’t think this tongue-in-cheek discussion is trivial – it’s profoundly important. And if any of you are interested in what your technical assistance brothers and sisters do, please have a look at our website for TACU – technical assistance consultants united at http://www.ta-consultants-united.org. We’re the boys and girls in suits who mostly work in offices (not all the time – our people get killed and hurt too, though not as much as your people do).

    Good luck!

    Stephen Dewar, General Secretary, TACU

    1. Thanks for the comment, Stephen.

      It’s appropriate to bring George Orwell into the discussion, as you’re right, he argues so compellingly that language matters. I think everyone in the development world would benefit if we followed his rules on using the English language, from his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

      The fact that he was writing that in 1946 and we’re still arguing about the use of language in 2012 shows that these debates don’t disappear, only take on a different form in different times and contexts.

    2. Steven — Actually, I hate “technical assistance” as well! In fact, even “technical” is over/wrongly used. For example, I’m a communications specialist. In conversation with project mgr from lead contractor, she was quite impressed, apparently, exclaiming, “You really think…well, technically!” Duh. However, I also agree with you about “verbing” nouns…such as, “How would you operationalize that?” Yuk.

  15. “There’s nothing romantic or adventurous about staying in hotels, using their wifi, and being driven around in a 4WD.”

    They are doing that when doing fieldwork?! Heck I must be working for the wrong NGO then!

  16. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing! :-) Next, I would like to see some critical reflection on the term ‘gender mainstreaming’. Since when has mainstream been a verb? Gender issues are seriously jargon-impaired!

    1. Thanks Louise. I agree, changing parts of speech is not ok! “Mainstream” is not a verb. I also cringe when I hear “impactful”, but we’re dealing with a language where “Google” and “friend” have become verbs, so maybe resisting is a losing battle.

  17. You have a circular argument here. You suggest capacity building as an alternative to trainings and then trainings as an alternative to capacity building. Logic dictates that these options should not be listed. I personally hate trainings simply because I would expect people to attend a ‘training session’ or ‘training course’ rather than ‘a training’. I suspect this is a UK/USA difference in usage.

        1. Sam, you are being far too generous! Our objective was never to bring clarity to the development discourse. It was to purely get cheap laughs by making puerile jokes. But well spotted by the way – only a few others picked that up too.

  18. I quite like “in the field”, because it is how it used to be, living six months in a tukul, eating rice everyday, and the only leisure was to visit another refugee camp.
    Otherwise I will agree with the rest and I just notice that in banning these words, you put Oxfam out of business

    1. Yes I am concerned that I may be out of a job too, not least because my boss has unilaterally cancelled the use of the following terms in writing project proposals: ‘budget’, ‘methodology’, ‘timeline’ and ‘outputs’

  19. I have made it my task to refer to USA as Sub-Canadian America and to Western Europe as Sub-alpine Europe the moment any ‘Development folks’ say Indian Sub-continent ( instead of South Asia) or Sub-saharan Africa (instead of African Union or Arab League) . A dose of their own ‘jargons’ help them remember better, how it seems from the other side. Asia and African is done being made to feel SUB! and by the way the Sahara or the Himalayas are not barriers, its a bridge for the respective continents.

  20. I don’t think there is anything wrong with any of the terms listed above. Like Monica said they can certainly be misused but I think there is a time and place for each of those terms.

  21. I find it really difficult not to say “developing world” because I think all countries are striving for certain hallmarks (clean water, safety, education etc. etc.) and when you want to talk about a country on a scale in trying to achieve certain things what other word can you use? I also use “capacity building” in a broad sense (aka. sharing skills, knowledge, tools, giving some assistance in terms of resourcing etc.) that I don’t think your new suggestions necessarily connote.

    1. For me Monica, it is how we use the term and how to use it better as you say. When we talk about, for example, high fertility rates in developing countries, what do we mean? Which countries? Bangladesh’s fertility rate is below 3, almost the same at the U.S. Bangladesh is part of the ‘developing’ world, yet does not fit a statement like that. We use the term to generalise too much when talking about challenges, issues and countries. Lets just refer to specific countries when talking about development issues.

      I explore this is more detail here: http://wp.me/p2hvdS-mP

      1. How can it be so wrong to describe a country or region as ‘developing’? One of the big things you can use to distinguish between developing and developed countries or regions is access to or availability of public infrastructure. Fertility rates might be the same in the US and Bangladesh, but a lot can be said about the difference in availability of and/or access to hospitals or medical expertise when women in these countries need to give birth, right? Although, ironically, while the US may have the infrastructure, the private (as opposed to public) nature of their health and medical system has had implications for accessibility so much so that – and this is a good objective measure for you – travel insurance companies class the US alongside the most high-risk (or least developed) parts of the world!

What are you thinking?