Jargon – the Undermining of Accountability to Stakeholders?

The other day, I realized I’ve been in the business of development and conflict management for 13 years. If you include my time doing human rights reasearch and advocacy, its 15 going on 16 years. Which I think is just enough time for me to credibly admit that most of us are winging it most of the time, and happily confident in what we’re saying about 20 minutes a week. Since moving into the blogosphere and thus taking a step back from daily meetings and face to face interactions with actual people in the same field, I have found that my confidence in the arguments that I make in my writing is increasing. With considerable reflection, I have concluded that a key contributing factor is the fact that I am not listening to jargon and therefore not spouting it to my audience. Over time, my readership has gone up and I like to think this is partly because I use actual words – words that mean something to the average person, and that have meaning to me.


Moreover, there are so many words and terms that development practitioners use that mean one thing in discussion and something very different in practice. Take for example ‘mainstreaming.’ In discussion (and on paper) the term means we’re going to accomodate the interests and needs of all groups – women, children, the elderly, disabled, minorities, etc. – and topics – environment, DRR, etc. – but when we get to the actual practice of it, I’m hard pressed to come up with more examples than gender-based budgeting and pro-poor planning (and even that one is a bit iffy). Of course I read only this morning that Wales has decided that all future legislation passed must be done from an environmental perspecitve. That may very well be the best case of ‘mainstreaming’ I’ve heard of, and it is something that means the same on paper as it does in practice.
Another favourite is ‘locally-owned.’ I admit I am guilty of over-use of this phrase and, after a conversation with my husband the other day, have decided to ban it from my vocabulary. Drastic? Perhaps, but necessary. When development practitioners speak and write about projects being ‘locally-owned’ we mean that after disucssing the priorities of the stakeholder group in question (be it a country, a ministry, or a community) we designed a project, and someone in authority among the stakeholders will sign off on various decisions at key points in implementation. My husband, having just returned from a trip where community resilience was the heart of the discussions, shared with me that these particular communities had a different view of resilience than what we see in every development programme drafted in the last two years. Their concept of resilience stems from adapting to change and overcoming challenges using traditional practice and local knowledge. The more money the internatioanl community pumps into vulnerable communities to increase their resilience to climate change (definition in question) based on foreign practices, the more the communities fear becoming more dependent to be more resilient. So, all of a sudden locally-owned really looks like ‘locally accepted’ and that has whole different connotations both in theory and in practice. I imagine the same scenario is applicable more often than not in other countries.
‘Last mile finance’ is a new kid on the block in the development finance community. I know this because my husband has been known to throw it into conversation with me, until one day I told him I had no idea what he was talking about. Now, I’m an educated person married to a development finance guy and all I could think when I heard this particular phrase was ‘yeah! We’re almost done financing development,’ becuase that is the image the phrase conjures (alrnatively, I also conjured the idea that it meant development finance for the most remote communities – the ones at the ‘end of the road’). I was wrong on both accounts. If you’re not in development finance, you’re proabably a bit confused as well. Imagine throwing that one out in discussion with local government officials who simply want to talk waste water treatment or improvements in procurement processes. It turns out that last mile finance refers to actually financing community development – that is, ensuring that development finance makes it way through the public financial management system to reach local government and community budgets intact. A good idea that serves us all better when spelled out in its long form rather than its jargon form.
Deep dives. Seriously, who came up with this one? Can we not just say ‘in-depth reading/research’ (or better yet ‘extra reading’) and not sound like pompous asses? Someone stop these jargon-creating people before they hurt themselves.
Jargon itself isn’t really the problem. I mean, we all have slang and colloquialisms in our native languages and its use doesn’t necessarily do irreversible damage to our cultures. The problem with development jargon, as I see it, has more to do with the fact that the words are place holders for more specific language – basically, the actual verbs describing what we intend to do – that we never really get around to defining – and truely acting on – at a later date. It makes us sound responsible and responsive, being – god forbid – locally owned, and avoiding the possibility of appearing donor or organizationally-driven. The problem is that our over use of jargon – intent without specifics – allows us to make promises but not be forced to keep them during the implementation of our projects. Jargon can be molded or explained away much more easily than proper descriptions of actions. It is also something of a get out of jail free card with stakeholders. If we only managed part of the job, say mainstreaming environment or getting local ‘ownership’, we have ways out that detailed descriptions would otherwise not allow. ‘No, really, witth the mayor as part of the project board, the community takes ownership of this project,’ (nevermind that the community probably couldn’t describe the project beyond a few key activities.) ‘Yes, environmental mainstreaming was achieved. We did an environmental baseline study of our activities and have regularly reported against it.’ (I made that one up. I’ve never seen nor heard of an environmental baseline of a project that wasn’t explicitly about the environment. Environment impact assessments are separate).
Maybe we don’t sound as interesting when we leave the jargon behind, but we certainly have a clearer understanding of what we plan to do, and, more importantly, the stakeholders do too. And that’s the point – in order to be effective, sustainable and have long term impact, there needs to be accountability and clear communication with stakeholders. With the amount and type of jargon we use, we may very well be hindering rather than helping this objective.

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