Aidspeak: some of your best/worst responses to my call for examples

January 3, 2018 0 By Duncan Green

I’m on holiday for the first week of 2018, trying to see the Northern Lights in Norway. In the meantime, here are the most-read posts from 2017, in reverse order starting with number 5. Here’s the original if you want to read the comments

Well you took a few hours to get started in response to Tuesday’s post, but then the floodgates opened and an avalanche of bullshit jargon 2crashed over me via blog comments and tweets (and yes, mixed metaphors were discussed). Cheers guys. Within the aid business, a few patterns appear:

  1. Management obfuscation which sheds almost no light on what is actually being discussed

This from ‘NGO worker ant’ on ending a role in their organization:

“We…are now at a point where we need to adjust our capacities to advance the multi-dimensional pathways to diversify the [YYY] network…One of these changes includes rolling-off the [XXX] position, and embedding capacities to support our diversifying [YYY] aspirations under the [ZZZ position]…We will leverage our existing capacities for greater reach and greater coherence of our ongoing governance, membership, and broader diversifying ambitions, with no additional cost to these priorities.”

Or this from Rasmus:

“DFAT’s governance programme in Indonesia aims to: ‘For its first phase, KOMPAK supports the GoI to put in place improved systems, processes and procedures focusing on specific issues within its results areas towards achieving very specific high-level End of Facility Objectives (EOFOs) to which all its activities and projects contribute to.’ One of the projects under the programme is called: ‘Innovations for Service Delivery and Economic Empowerments’. I once read their ToC without becoming any wiser as to what the programme is actually about.”

  1. Random scattering of portentous (but vacuous) words and jargon inflation

This from Poyrot: ‘…the aim being to purposefully valorize the land with strategic efficiency as a means of providing a sustainably effective solution to..’

jargon 3While Rick Davies dug out his excellent 2006 post on jargon inflation

  1. Metaphors: Overload or just plain worrying

From Anon:

“’The field of impact measurement in itself is undergoing a period of dramatic change, as others grapple with similar questions—how do we become astronomers of systems change able to study and understand far away movements and bodies that have a direct effect on what is near to us?; when we let go of the role of puppet master of change, how do we measure our contributions as servants of broader change processes, powerful as catalysts, yet humble in our awareness that it takes more than a village to change societies?’ – metaphor overload alert (astronomy, puppets, servants and villages)”

“‘We were very much ‘building the plane while flying it’ as we reimagined our planning process this year’  – understandable metaphor, until you really think through the implications of getting an unbuilt plane off the ground, or being in one!”

To which I would add a personal dislike from the transparency mafia: ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. Really? Definitely going to avoid any hospital that believes that……

  1. But aid types cannot even get close to academics (or management consultants)

Alice Evans ‘sees your aidspeak and raises you academia’:

‘Someone with a PhD once read my paper and replied: “Is change ‘caused’ at the level of ideas or agents? You say interests are not a priori but then claim they are shaped by material circumstances? If it’s about ideas then is the relationship to agents dialectical or co-constituted? If it’s about material interests then where do our ideas about them come from?… I guess a simpler way to phrase the question is whether you think ontology is a priori to epistemology?’

And management consultants can give them a good run for their money. This from Rasmus:

‘Here is Maxwell Stamp’s attempt to describe ‘what we do’:
‘Flexibility is essential to success, so we are always accommodating and responsive. But without ever allowing ourselves to compromise the integrity of the services we provide. All those services are customised, not commoditised, and include: Each of those sectors has a number of subsectors, each with its own disciplines and expertise. But even that is by no means the totality of the areas in which we have delivered impressive results. Because we rely on our grey cells rather than on black box solutions. So our skills are jargon 1readily transferable.’’

  1. How strong is the defence for Jargon?

Then of course there’s just plain nausea-inducing violence to the language of Shakespeare as in this from Shadrock:

“We verbalized a plan to chair a listening session and then share the contours of that back with leadership.”

Those responsible for these atrocities should check out (and maybe memorize) George Orwell’s 6 rules for writing good English.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

IDS’ Emilie Wilson did mount a slightly half-hearted defence of jargon. In response to a blogpost entitled 17 Development Cliches I’ll be Avoiding in 2017, she pointed out that what looks like jargon can be‘a handy short-cut behind which sits stacks of research, complicated concepts, collaborative (and frequently painful) deliberations….. (try describing “empowerment” in a tweet rather than just using #empowerment)’.

But perhaps the most disturbing observation came from Binagwaho Gakunju: ‘Do we use aidspeak so much that we don’t even hear it anymore, like smokers and cigarette smell?’

And sure enough, quite a few of my own pet phrases made an appearance: Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation; convening and brokering; space.’ Ouch.

Thanks everyone. Keep ‘em coming and hope Alice follows through with the idea of setting up a website for choice Academic nonsense.