Which Devspeak horror words topped the poll + some v interesting comment threads

It was only intended as a bit of Friday fun, but last week’s post on which devspeak words you would most like to ban generated such interesting comments that it warrants a follow up.

First up, the people have spoken. After 500 votes, ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘the field’ are the clear joint winners in the hall of devspeak shame, well ahead of ‘impactful’, ‘capacity building’ and ‘learnings’. Take a bow.

Some new categories and distinctions became clearer through the dozens of contributions on the blog and twitter:

Words that both reflect and encourage lazy thinking: Susan Watkins offered ‘communities’, talked about in reverential tones as if they are single, homogenous and devoid of power imbalances, when ‘they are often riven by acrimony, jealousy, and fear of witchcraft.’

To avoid such laziness, Margaret O’Callaghan suggested that ‘the important thing is to stop in your tracks and check for meaningfulness/appropriateness of such terms’, which brings to mind George Orwell’s wonderful 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English language‘:

‘What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally’.

[long paragraphs were apparently less of a problem before social media]

Words that appear neutral, but aren’t: ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are doubtless useful, but who defines them? As Moctar Aboubacar put it ‘the real problem is not the words themselves, but the practices that lie behind them (thinking that training is enough to solve a problem, being lazy about what participation means).’

Words that are potentially useful, but that become devalued and deadened by over- and mis-use, sprinkled into presentations and documents as a signalling device, rather than adding substance: ‘strategic’ (Lis Jackson) or ‘transformative’ (me).

Words that smuggle in bias and paternalism through the back door: Ann Swidler: ‘We need to think twice (or three or four times) if we are going to use “empower” as a transitive verb, as in “I (or we) empower you.” What in the world could that mean? Usually it means “we are going to train you so that somehow you will be different (no evidence this happens), without giving you any material help or doing anything to change larger structural conditions.”’ I would add the self-serving way aid peeps conflate ‘aid’ and ‘development’ – drives me bonkers.

Jargon can play both valuable and annoying roles, either as genuine use of technically specific words to describe particular concepts, objects or processes, or a lot of hot air designed to prove how smart and insiderish the speaker is. One test is ‘can you find a simpler alternative?’ None of the efforts to find an alternative to ‘stakeholder’ worked, but Remi came up with a delightful list from a booming and allied field of jargon – social entrepreneurs and their businesspeak. Here are the ones I understood:

Wins – Success
Learnings – Failure
Impact – It’s Good but you don’t usually invest in it
Ecosystem – Stakeholders
Zero in – Focus
Derisk – Scale up
BoP/Bottom of the Pyramid – Poor people
Sustainable – Breaking even
Pivot – Start again with the same name
C-suite – Overpaid white male execs
Blockchain – Database
Paradigm shift – Change

Deborah Doane came up with a great rule of thumb – would you use this phrase to describe something in your own life, neighbourhood etc? If not, then why use it elsewhere? Her example: ‘My 16 year old son is looking to achieve a ‘sustainable livelihood’ for half-term in Peckham. If any local ‘stakeholders’ have any opportunities for this ‘beneficiary’ please get in touch. It could be ‘transformative’ & even ’empowering’. Hopefully ‘scaleable’ to his friends.’

Just to prove nothing is ever 100% agreed, there were two heroic pushbacks against the winning/losing words. Ivan Tasic was politely baffled by objections to ‘the field’, ‘I use it a lot so it would be helpful to understand the issue. I’ve heard once that “field” is so nineties, but that is not an argument. I am thinking about community or outreach as alternatives but in my head these are only sub-sections of the field. Anyone?’ I have to say I agree a bit with Ivan – not quite sure what the problem is with ‘the field’ unless you think people mean it in the agricultural sense.

Phil Vernon even defended beneficiaries: ‘Odd that it’s paternalistic to identify the people who are intended to accrue improvements to their lives (aka benefits) from an initiative explicitly designed to help people improve their lives. It would be weird not to be able to articulate that surely?’

Finally, Hilary Footitt took us all a bit deeper: ‘It seems to be OK to take an ironic rhetorical distance from this Development vocabulary but then continue the discussion in a solely anglophone context. Can we really decolonize development in English?’

So thanks to everyone who joined in – will any of us use words differently as a result? For my part, I promise to try not to use ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘the field’ – please shout if you spot me lapsing. And to Tom Kirk: ‘my colleagues and I in academia can make them as fast as you ban them’ – bring it on.

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24 Responses to “Which Devspeak horror words topped the poll + some v interesting comment threads”
  1. The comedian Kate Smurthwaite observed that no-one uses “empowering” when dealing with real power. Can you imagine anyone saying “Mrs Clinton, being secretary of state must have been really empowering?”

  2. Jo

    My problem with ‘the field’ is it’s so patronising! It completely divides the world into rich countries where we people do thinking, and poor countries (ie the field) where people go out and put that thinking into practice. The world is, or should not be, like this! People would never call London ‘the field’ even though there’s a lot of development work going on here – even if it is more focussed on thinking/fundraising etc. Either the whole world should be part if the development ‘field’ or none of it.

    • Ken Smith

      I think “the field” is a bit patronising the other way round too , so if you are in a rich country focussed on thinking/fundraising etc none of your ideas can have value if you have not are not “in the field”

      • Miroslav Vitous

        Much of this depends on your culture and choice of definition. In our own organisation, the field is the site of practice and a useful generic term. For a community worker it may be out in communities, for an OD practitioner it would be with a client organisation and for a manager it would be inside their own organisation. It works well for us, but not for you, which is fine.

        Expressing an opinion about what terms should or should not be used by us all feels a bit colonising.

    • Simon Hearn

      Maybe it comes from research: ‘field work’ and ‘field study’ are used in all kinds of research – meaning outside of the lab. A researcher in London would do field work on the streets of London, and it would then be valid for them to say that London is the field.

      • Duncan Campbell

        Yes! There are some very legitimate and respectful and helpful uses of the term ‘field’. It is only when it is used, either carelessly or intentionally, to mean something condescending and unacceptable, that it should not be used.

        For example, if you use ‘the field’ to mean “that place where people have to use extra travel and expense accounts, etc, to get to”, that is a totally legitimate use of the word. If you use it to mean, “that place where there is greater need and less capacity”, then you should probably stop, think about what you’re thinking about, and either not say anything, or else revise your thoughts into something more legitimate and respectful that would not include the use of the word ‘field’.

        The word itself can have very positive meanings. It depends on the user, not the word, as to whether or not the meaning is acceptable.

    • Muthoni Muriu

      I couldn’t agree more! In addition to being patronising it suggests, almost by default, that there is a power differential between those who are going out (or down) to the field and the unfortunate souls found there. It might make sense from a research perspective but it is odd when used to describe projects or programs happening in a specific geography with specific actors. You can usually replace field with geography. Also ‘field’ is particularly weird from me when talking to students of ‘international development’ in a US context. So yes to nixing this particular use of the word!!!!

  3. Duncan Campbell

    Hey Duncan,

    I’m a wee bit dyslexic, and the frist time I raed your blog, I misread “conversational” as “controversial”. It really fit, as the subject you had written about that day, as is often the case, was quite controversial. So I read, “This is a controversial blog written and maintained by Duncan Green, …” Since the subject was, indeed, controversial, the disclaimer made sense to me. 🙂

    So thank you, once again, for your controversial blog; it helps us to regain consciousness, poke our brains up out of the foxhole, and think about things that matter, or at least things that are interesting!

    With respect to the War of the Words, I wonder if anyone has mentioned the concept of “context” (I confess I have not read all of the comments)? I have heard every single word in the list used to communicate something positive and useful and appropriate … and I have heard every single word on the list used out of laziness, to communicate something condescending, or even shockingly patronizing, and any number of other unacceptable meanings. It’s the context, not the word itself, that determines whether the meaning is acceptable and positive or unacceptable and negative. In every negative case, it was the speaker or the writer that I found offensive, not the word or words. I think we should avoid “shooting the messenger” and save our critiques and admonitions for “the one who sends the messenger”.

    For example, I have had a strip torn out of me on several occasions for using the word “beneficiary”, but I refuse to receive it as a legitimate admonition; I only ever receive it as a rant. I NEVER use the word in a condescending way, as if I am some great saviour who is bringing help to hapless, helpless, powerless lumps of protoplasm in human form. I’ve heard the word used that way, and it is offensive. But I don’t use it that way. I only ever mean, the people for whom the development project has been conceived and for whom all the efforts at design, fundraising, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, etc, etc, are being undertaken. And yes, one should be very concerned that the beneficiaries have either been the initiators of the project, or at least fully and completely participants from a very early stage, but that is a separate issue of “approach” and “respect” and “doing things right”. In fact, it is necessary to explicitly identify “the people who are meant to receive the primary benefit”, i.e. the ‘beneficiaries’, in order to be certain that one has used the correct and respectful approach to the project! The beneficiaries are a distinct group of people, and there is no other helpful, understandable word that can be used as a direct and clear synonym for the above-noted definition of ‘beneficiary’.

    So Duncan, rather than shoot the word ‘beneficiary’ as if it were, in and of itself, evil, how about only using it in the context of making the distinction between “the people who will accrue the principal or primary benefit from a project”, as opposed to all the other people who will be involved (i.e. stakeholders)? A fundraiser, by virtue of earning a salary for the work he or she does, “benefits” from a project. But the project was not (or clearly should not have been) conceived and implemented primarily so that the fundraiser could have a salary. If the context of what you want to say calls for the word ‘beneficiary’ to communicate clearly and succinctly the concept of ‘the people who will accrue the principal or primary benefit from a project’, why is that not OK? Just because you are identified as a person who benefits from something is in no way an indication of passivity, or helplessness, or any other such thing. I ‘receive’ benefits from the Government of Canada, but I in no way consider myself patronised or helpless or diminished because I receive them!

    However, if you stick to your guns, I am waiting with excited anticipation and great expectation to see the lexical and grammatical gymnastics and contortions you will have to subject yourself to as you try to find a way to express the idea of ‘beneficiary’. It should be fun to watch, but I expect some of your paragraphs to get much longer and less coherent.

  4. Really important stuff. What about going on a mission! Was ‘resilience’ in there at all?
    Glad to see that ‘community’ made it near the top of the list. This paper just published takes the word to task, and its related ‘community-based’. Free download: search for “Uncovering ‘Community’: Challenging an Elusive Concept in Development and Disaster Related Work” in the journal Societies. Also related my blog here too at IDS: “Why do we pretend there is ‘Community’? Problems of Community Based-Adaptation (CBA) and Community Based Disaster Risk Reduction (CBDRR)”.

  5. Laura Ahearn

    As a linguistic anthropologist, I find this conversation fascinating. Words live “socially charged lives,” the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin noted. He also stated the following: “The word in language is half someone else’s. . . Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated — overpopulated — with the intentions of others. . . Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life…” Because language is inherently social, the words we use as development professionals have the potential not just to reflect our intended meanings but also to reflect and shape power dynamics, cultural identities, and social norms.

  6. George

    Hi, I found this discussion fascinating.

    Personally, I quite agree that there is some ‘truth’ in the term ‘beneficiaries’, as Phil Vernon says: these are the “people who are intended to accrue improvements to their lives (aka benefits) from an initiative explicitly designed to help people improve their lives”

    But at the same time I think key issues with the term is that it implies passivity, and there’s that sense of paternalism: ‘they’ benefit from what ‘we’ do. In reality, ‘beneficiaries’ have to work incredibly hard to implement changes that over time ‘accrue improvements to their lives – they’re anything but ‘passive’.

    For this reason I don’t like the term and try to avoid using it. But on the other hand, I haven’t come across the right alternative. I know some people/organisations use ‘rights-holders’ which I really like, but for those of us working at the livelihoods/enterprise-development/market-systems end of the sector, we don’t tend to focus so much on ‘rights’ so it’s not wholly appropriate. Sometimes I’ve tried ‘project participants’ but it’s also unsatisfactory: it should not be about projects and there’s still that hint of paternalism and ‘othering’ that Deborah refers to above.

    But I would genuinely be interested to hear what others think is the best alternative to ‘beneficiaries’. It’s quite easy to criticise it and I think it’s good that we do, but what should be used instead?

    • Rob Fuller

      Maybe we shouldn’t try to find a single word to replace ‘beneficiaries’, but let it depend on context. I have found that ‘participants’ often fits, and I think is hugely preferable to ‘beneficiaries’: it emphasizes that people are making active decisions about whether and how to participate in an intervention, rather than being passive recipients of whatever an NGO decides to deliver.

      To me another important problem with the word ‘beneficiary’ is that it assumes that the people Oxfam is working with are benefiting from the intervention. Whether people are indeed benefiting should be something that organisations like Oxfam have to demonstrate, rather than simply assume. This point is made very well here: https://scottchaplowe.com/beneficiary-revisited/

  7. Simon

    The field – a place where we experts might go to do experiments. I point out that our colleagues working in developing countries are not in a field – they are in offices with computers just like us.

  8. Ken Smith

    Couldn’t agree more , in the office in Oxford I once had an email from a concerned member of the public that the lights had been left on overnight in the office in Cambodia , not sure which of us is in the field then.

  9. Rob Fuller

    I agree that ‘the field’ is a strongly ‘othering’ term that we should avoid. But it’s also fascinating to me how ‘the field’ doesn’t have a fixed meaning, but seems to be relative to the speaker’s position. I have heard people in Oxford talk about visiting the Nairobi office as going to ‘the field’. From a country office, a trip to a provincial or district office would be called going to ‘the field’; while from that local office, people talk about going to ‘the field’ when visiting a rural community. And I’m sure that farmers who live in those communities have their own idea about where ‘the field’ is.

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