By Moin Qazi
We live in an age where noisy posturing often substitutes reasoned debates and brash opinion trumps hard fact. The thread of the argument often disappears in a blizzard of gee-whiz statistics, acronyms, and catchphrases in interviews with eminent folks of all kinds.
The problem with buzzwords
Certain buzzwords—inclusive growth, environmental sustainability, poverty eradication—are rendered meaningless by overuse. Capacity-building, community-driven action, collaboration, participatory action, anti-oppression are just some examples of a multitude of terms regularly thrown around by professionals in the nonprofit sector. These buzzwords can be reasonably categorised as industry speak, or just plain old jargon.
Paper is substituted for action, conferences are substituted for work, perquisites are substituted for truly earned rewards. There are no penalties for corruption, laziness and divisive rabble-rousing. Adept at diplomacy and wordplay, experts obscure the real concerns behind a fog of jargon and euphemism. No wonder the villages distrust all the urbanised gentries who jeep themselves into villages, exhorting villagers to produce fewer babies and more food at exploitive prices, all for the benefit of their urban brethren. They deliver these messages 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 puts it: “All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth”
Development experts live on a planet of their own—in total disconnect with the average citizen—dominated by summits, conclaves and conferences. Each one is considered as an important saloon for designing some unique and path-breaking solutions. 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-winded 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’. However, as he goes on to note, the very taken-for-granted quality of ‘development’ and many of the words 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 what the philosopher W.B. Gallie 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. 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.
Code-words for the experts
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 layperson, 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. As the popularity of some of them has grown, so has the criticism of the use of ill-defined terminology in a sector that makes tall claims of transparency and accountability. Development communications must purge the meaningless jargon used to gloss over, qualify or even glorify outcomes.
Better vocabulary for a better world
These starry-eyed academics create 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’. All the appealing metaphors of NGO websites and academe-best-sellers—’the poverty trap’, ‘the ladder of development’—go limp under the magnifying glass.
Discussions and seminars on poverty, hunger and starvation are organised at glitzy parties at swanky hotels. Much disservice has been done to the cause of rural development on account of this schizoid approach—alternating engagement and withdrawal. In order to cut through the fog, we have to lend our ear to the voice of the people who are the stakeholders. 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 and so on. 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.”
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
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