What has language got to do with development? What do you think?

by Katherine Buoye, @kebuoye, The PIN Team.

What has language got to do with development?

The question sounds rhetorical, but without context you still have to stop to consider the tone and intended effect. For some, language has everything to do with development. Being a word person myself, I have to wonder where we’d be without language – how would we draft policy, communicate with funders and partners, turn hard data into palatable prose, or blog?

On the other hand, maybe language is just the immaterial concern of communications professionals and writers. We could argue that it is, at minimum, necessary (hard to ignore a need for cogent policy), but what role, if any, does language play in the doing of development? Does language effect development or merely support it?

Andrea Cornwall, professor of development at Sussex University, posed the question in her paper, ‘What do Buzzwords do for Development Policy?’, and its boldness is hard to ignore. That a seemingly simple question can open a world of disagreement about discourse underscores a tension many of us are often oblivious to; for some language is integral to development, for others, less so. For Cornwall the academic, this is an important dissonance, but what does it say about the development sector?

Cornwall’s work is often critical of what she calls the ‘normative project that is development’ and she has taken up a particularly powerful argument on buzzwords as an example of the disjointed language in development discourse. A number of smart commentaries on development buzzwords have drawn on Cornwall’s criticism, including Bill Easterly who has advocated “clear language instead of buzzwords”. On a more lighthearted note, Easterly’s Twitter request for “decodings of aid/development jargon” produced the very funny ‘Aidspeak Dictionary’.

Elsewhere, development professionals have voiced buzzword fatigue on blogs, social media, and discussion forums (see WhyDev’s entertaining love/hate list). The most constructive of these discussions challenge empty communication and turn buzzwords inside out; they clarify meanings, seek substance, and propose better alternatives.

Buzzwords1The PIN Blog Buzzwords Series

Buzzwords live in the thrill of now. They demand immediate conversation, disrupt the status quo, and yet at any moment might lose relevance. Words that rouse public awareness and global debate one day can be wrecked by overuse and over-simplification tomorrow.  From a practical point of view it’s virtually impossible to dismiss the current ‘It’ word, but it’s important to remember that while words communicate our thinking, they also influence the way we think. Because buzzwords often mean different things to different people and change in certain contexts, they are inherently problematic.

‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on. ‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’ ‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

“Buzz” itself has multiple meanings, from a pulsing air of excitement to a continuous humming sound, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that buzzwords can either electrify dialogue, or reduce it to meaningless background chatter.  Cornwall criticizes buzzwords for their ‘vague and euphemistic qualities’, but if we can untangle the buzz from the word itself, perhaps we can find more productive ways of using them. Buzzwords should encourage engaged discussion and inspire ownership of the language we use. Instead of providing easy answers, they might raise questions: How does our organization understand this word? Does it have a place our communications strategy? Will it support our message, or distract from it?

To tackle these questions, the PIN blog will host a series of blogs on buzzwords – all using the same buzzword logo. If you have a buzzword you’d like us to discuss or would like to write your own post on a particular buzzword, tweet us @PIN_Network or send us an email at practicalinitiatives@gmail.com. We look forward to reading your contributions.

What has language got to do with development?  What do you think?


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