9 hated development phrases & suggestions for a new lexicon

by Weh Yeoh, Brendan Rigby, Allison Smith | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 1 October 2012 15:48 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Weh Yeoh, Brendan Rigby and Allison Smith are on the WhyDev team where this blog post originally appeared. WhyDev provides a collaborative and participatory platform for people passionate about development aid and other global issues. The opinions expressed are their own.

Last month the team at WhyDev wrote an article describing nine of their most hated international development phrases and asked their readers what they should be called instead. As part of the Fun Economics month at INESAD, they share with Development Roast the results of the humorous public poll and ask for your thoughts and further suggestions.

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 nine development phrases that we particularly hate and the results of a public vote for new lexicon 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.

Results of the Why Dev public vote for a new lexicon:

What is better than "in the field"?

- Visiting projects 40 percent

- Suffering from per diemitis   5 percent

- Out of the office 13 percent

- On a work trip 31 percent

- Other 12 percent

?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."

Results of the WhyDev public vote for a new lexicon:

What is better than "beneficiaries"?

- People 34 percent

- Contributors   8 percent

- People aid/development is targeting   30 percent

- Other   27 percent

?3. Developing countries

How it is used.


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.

Results of the WhyDev public vote for a new lexicon:

What is better than "developing countries"?

- Majority world   8 percent

- Referring to specific countries  41 percent

- Terms that have clear parameters and meanings, such as

"Least Developed Countries"        0 percent

- Just don't generalise, ever     0 percent

- Other 51 percent

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.

Results of the WhyDev public vote for a new lexicon:

What is better than "capacity building"?

- Asking important questions 10 percent

- Listening sessions 12 percent

- Trainings 39 percent

- Other 39 percent

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?”

Results of the WhyDev public vote for a new lexicon:

What is better than "livelihoods"?

- Creating/building jobs 26 percent

- Thrivelihoods   10 percent

- Work 12 percent

- Jobs   7 percent

- Employment 25 percent

- Other 20 percent

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.

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.

Results of the WhyDev public vote for a new lexicon.

What is better than "local"?

- Nationals 23 percent

- Use the proper identity of the people you are referring to 67 percent

- Other  72 11 percent

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”.

Results of the WhyDev public vote for a new lexicon.

- Workshop (we know this is used sometimes, but could be used more) 52 percent

- Discussion  4 percent

- Information exchange (or infochange) 22 percent

- Capacity building   4 percent

- Other 118 18 percent

How would you shape the language of development so that it didn’t drive you crazy? What other development buzzwords get up your nose? Leave a reply below.

WhyDev is a a collaborative and participatory platform for individuals passionate about development, aid, and other global issues.

The team at WhyDev consists of Weh Yeoh, Brendan Rigby and Allison Smith. You can find out more about what they are doing here.

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