Which awful Devspeak words would you most like to ban? Your chance to vote on the Terrible Ten

Ann Huddock of Counterpart got in touch recently to discuss the idea of a post on how much she hates the word ‘empowerment’ (she’s banned it in Counterpart comms). In the end, we decided that the word had already got enough criticism, but I put out a tweet asking people to nominate other devspeak words we should ban, and my twitter feed was promptly overwhelmed by a tidal wave of gobbledygook (now that is a fine word).

I’ve put some of them together in an A-Z below (OK, there’s no Z), and a poll to identify the absolute worst, but first some overall thoughts:

First, there are clearly some broad categories

  • Mangling the language of Shakespeare (‘impactful’, ‘capacitating’, ‘learnings’)
  • Words that arrogant, patronising and/or neo-colonial (‘empowerment’, ‘capacity building’)
  • Good words used sloppily or badly (eg ‘technical’)
  • Straight out lies (Cambria Feingold: “empowering”/”participatory”/”demand-driven” when it’s anything but). See also, ‘country ownership’.
  • Words that are just outdated or wrong (‘The South’; ‘The Field’)
  • Words that are designed to baffle/make the speaker sound smart (‘Leveraging’, ‘business model’)
  • Words which are actually phrases, but I let them through anyway (theory of change, but it hurt)
  • Words that used to mean something, but have had the life sucked out of them by endless repetition and lip service (‘participatory’, ‘transformative’)

Second, as well as specific suggestions, there were some good overall comments:

Deborah Doane: ‘We should always ask ourselves: would I use this phrase in my own life or community? If the answer is no, then cease and desist!’ Good point: would I talk about ‘sustainable livelihoods’ in South London? Probably not…

Elise Legault: ‘Wish we could draw-up a list and create an ‘anti devspeak’ app you could run through any text and it would give you plain language alternatives.’ [any offers?]

Dan Simpson: Don’t ban the words; expose the bullshit artists who are abusing them! Sherry Arnstein’s ‘ladder of citizen participation’ is a genius example.

Adam Pickering: Agree with most of the suggested words to ban but would struggle without some of them – which possibly points to bigger issues. Maybe changing language because it has become synonymous with an inherent power imbalance makes us feel better because it obfuscates an awkward reality?

And for those that want to dig further, Jonathan Fox reminds us of Andrea Cornwall’s classic book all about the problems with devspeak, Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords

Then Carol Ballantine got me thinking when she observed ‘Funny thing about this thread is that, with the exception of resilience, I think it’s the same as when I studied devt 15 yrs ago.’ Is that true? If so, the churn and faddishness of the aid lexicon may have been exaggerated.

OK, here’s the list:

  • Accountability (when it’s not true)
  • Beneficiaries
  • Best practice
  • Business model (‘what does that even mean?’ asks Sophia Sprechmann – couldn’t agree more)
  • Capacitating
  • Capacity building: (Robin Perry: aka ‘how I learned to stop worrying and just fill the empty vessel with training’)
  • Catalytic
  • Co-anything (thanks, Nicholas Colloff)
  • Country ownership
  • Cross-cutting issues
  • Cross-fertilisation
  • Developing countries
  • Dignity (when you mean “rights”, Kevin Chang)
  • Dissemination – (‘communication that is one directional’, Caroline Cassidy)
  • Distributed ledger (Gawain Kripke is always a step ahead)
  • Empowerment
  • Enabling Environment
  • Failure
  • (in the) Field
  • Gender based violence (or even worse, GBV, when what we mean is violence against women: Emma Donnelly)
  • Global South
  • Good governance
  • Graduation
  • Ground-truthed
  • Growth
  • Holistic
  • Hostile Environment Awareness (eh?)
  • Human capital
  • Impactful (‘Seriously, it’s not even a word’, Chris Hufstader)
  • Innovation
  • International ‘Development’
  • Learnings
  • Leveraging (‘Used to make the speaker appear plugged into to ‘private sector’ and high finance, but makes them look an idiot instead.’, Dominic Elson)
  • Local staff vs international staff
  • Mainstreaming
  • On Mission (‘unless you are on Mars’, Ian MacAuslan)
  • Ownership (‘Especially when this needs a village management committee! Some villages must have 16 committees for water, wells, nutrition, schools, health, protection, etc… ’ Fenke Elskamp)
  • Participatory
  • PDIA (you know that’s not a word, right, Annette Fisher?)
  • The Poor
  • Pro-poor
  • Problematize
  • Projects
  • Resilience
  • Scaleable (which my spellcheck interestingly suggestions should be ‘saleable’…..)
  • Sensitising/sensitisation/sensitise (always done to a usually low income community, usually by people in a land cruiser and always with a large amount in the budget request – sorry, can’t remember who said that).
  • Stakeholder
  • Systemic Change
  • Success
  • Sustainability/”sustainable” when you mean either “we don’t have a plan for what happens after the project” or “sustainable income stream for my org” (Cambria Feingold)
  • Technical
  • Theory of Change (me: Nooooooooo)
  • Toolkit
  • Trade-offs
  • Transformative/Transformation/Transformational Change (‘and all the rest of the over inflated expectations about development aid’, Rick Davies)
  • Value for Money (Graham Wood: ‘when someone works out what value for money means I would ban that too.’)
  • Vulnerable populations
  • Workshop (when you mean a meeting, not car repairs, Kevin Chang)

There is of course a serious point here: proponents of aid and development do their cause no favours by using language that is sloppy, arrogant or just plain dumb.

I’ve picked a top (bottom) 10 from among the worst offenders – you only get 4 votes each, sorry!

Which of these 10 abominations would you most like to ban from the development lexicon? (you have 4 votes)

View Results

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Comments

57 Responses to “Which awful Devspeak words would you most like to ban? Your chance to vote on the Terrible Ten”
    • Duncan Green

      Sort of echoes George Orwell’s guide to writing – if a phrase is obvious, comes to mind without effort, then avoid it. It would be interesting (if exhausting) to write about social change and progress without an existing lexicon to hand – you’d have to really think about what you wanted to say in a much deeper way than usual.

    • Mano Demeure

      I share the feeling! Thank you Duncan for your BBC-HardTalk like mind provocation.
      After this, I confess very humbly that I am going to hesitate writing as before…
      I liked your selfcriticism about theory of change.
      Heartbreaking, but you did it.

    • Duncan Green

      Fair point, a lot of apples and pears in this list. I think people suggested Success and Failure because of doubts over who defines them and how, which echoes Moctar’s point – the words are just the messengers, so don’t shoot them!

  1. Moctar Aboubacar

    These lists are fun but really unhelpful. They are fun because we recognize words we use sometimes while cringing.
    They are unhelpful because (1) 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, or using words in certain ways that you don’t like.) (2) Some of the words suggested are absolutely ridiculous and shouldn’t be on that list. The poor?? Yes, some people are poor. It’s a word, it’s in the dictionary. Projects?? Trade-offs??

    Even you clearly don’t want to ban these words, you just want people to use them in a different way. Just say that, and talk about what underlies our poor usage of some of these words, don’t get dramatic.

  2. Hey, what about ‘zero’ for Z. I am fed up with it being randomly used from soft drinks names or to add emphasis eg ‘Zero tolerance’ to all ways of just meaning ‘nothing’ but wanting to sound like you are somehow modern!

    I am not in development, I’m in tech ethics and responsibility, so am rather gutted about some, like Empowerment as I have just written a thing on the 4th Industrial Revolution being instead the 1st Empowerment Revolution and rather liked it!

    If ANYONE can give me another word for stakeholders I will bite their hand off, but don’t have one yet. What are we supposed to use instead?

    Capacity building and toolkits are big for me. I work also with academia, ‘normative anchor points’ makes me actually feel physically violent and we have one ‘responsiblisation’ FFS, I despair.

    They are often shortcuts which make it easier to communicate, but agree with some, tho not others above, they are just distancing words and happy to ban many of them, because they stop us using real connecting words that people will understand and will help us get ‘transformative change’!!!

    A little fun for a Friday morning for me anyway!

  3. Ivan Tasic

    Nice list 🙂 It would be fun if everyone write the definition of each term and than to compare it.

    It can be my English or just ignorance, but to be honest for some terms I am not sure why are they problematic. In example, I assume that “beneficiaries” is problematic because it position people as passive (powerless???) recipients of services/aid. However, I am not sure about the alternatives. Especially if translated in my language (Serbian) other options like client or constituency (I read somewhere that these are possible alternatives) are not adequate. I would also like to learn what is wrong with 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 it 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?

    Finally, I agree that these are just words, it is the meaning and the message we are sending through them that is problematic. Cheers!

  4. Lindsey M.

    I agree with all except the ding against “gender-based violence.” It’s not a euphemism for violence against women, it’s a deliberately broader phrase that means violence perpetrated against anyone due to their gender expression–i.e., includes LGBT people in addition to women.

  5. Remi

    There’s also some jargon from new shores, like social entrepreneurs / business world trying to solve poverty. When attending meetings with these folks, I found myself trying to translate things back into my own jargon… here goes:
    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 – Poor people
    Sustainable – Breaking even
    Pivot – Start again with the same name
    Circular economy – Closing the loop
    C-suite – Overpaid white male execs
    Accelerate (expectation) – Get money
    Accelerate (reality) – Get mentor
    Blockchain – Database
    Paradigm shift – Change
    Smart – Selling personal data

  6. Steve Lewis

    Ninety percent of NGO’s in Nicaragua, where I live, are small ‘charities’ whose staff believe the best way to help poor people is to give them things. One-off distributions of clothes or food and random medical brigades to heal the sick. So you get rid of the word ’empowerment’ at your peril. I am afraid your discussion Duncan resonates of development professionals probably based in cities with too much time on their hands.

    • Duncan Green

      you’re probably right Steve, but those ppl are handing out $bns of dollars, so still a worthwhile exercise (eg to look at how the words they use reflect power disparities, history etc) I would argue.

    • Robert Spiegel

      One-off is a Britishism first used in 1934. And it would only apply to those sick poor if they were the first ones to receive the clothes and food, or were not subsequently the beneficiaries of such goods from the same suppliers.

  7. SF

    I often have lively discussions with colleagues around use of language – particular “Swinglish” (Swiss-English) which either uses English words or phrases in a way that native speakers don’t (I’m looking at you “Know-how”) or that have leaked over from French or German (“Planification”).
    I hate “leverage” (often used as a verb, noun, adjective or all three) with a passion because it is so unclear just pretentious. I am guilty of using quite a lot of the other, particularly “capacity development” because it is more than just training – or at least should be.

    The tricky words are those which have a loaded value in terms of power-relations and whether they are on patronising/neo-colonialist/racist spectrum. For example, once I overheard white European tourists (dressed in Khaki) in Kenya use “Local” in such a way that they might have well just have said “native”. So does that mean that I can’t use that “Local” either?

  8. 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.” That’s why my number-one vote is to banish “empowerment.”

  9. The most obvious one missing is the word “development” itself. As in “I am working in development”. The idea that the aid Industry believes it is “developing” other countries and that those countries “need development” hints at the major problem.

    So my vote goes to “development”

  10. Margaret O'Callaghan

    Stimulating discussion – and reminds me of the ‘Bullshit Bingo’ game we used to play years ago, for use when listening to some speaker who over uses meaningless jargon.

    But as has been said, the important thing is to stop in your tracks and check for meaningfulness/appropriateness of such terms

    I, like SF, wonder about the use of ‘local’ which I have used a lot in my draft Zambian mining impact manuscript – for want of a better word, and partly to distinguish between the original residents of the area and the influx of mining job attracted newcomers/outsiders (which actually has subtle connotations of tribal differences).
    Any suggestions?

  11. Cornelius Chipoma

    I thought ‘complexity’ is conspicuously missing here (or perhaps I missed in the various postings). Quickly becoming the worst offender. Instead of helping to bring clarity it does mightily the opposite!

  12. 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. Are there not alternative ways of doing and naming development which might make us all think differently? Can we really decolonize development in English?

    • Susan Watkins

      What about “community”/”communities”?

      Biruk & Price reviewed articles on US public health lit, and found that “community” was almost always “described as a place in need, lacking resources, deteriorating or chaotic, a locus of risk, disease, ignorance and hazard waiting for external interventions.”. 2005, in International Feminist Journal of Politics.

      And I’ve found that “community” also is used by NGOs etc to suggest peaceful homogeneity–the lions and lambs live together. In our research in Malawi, however, “communities” are often riven by acrimony, jealousy, and fear of witchcraft. .

  13. David Grocott

    I think it’s less about what words you use, and more about how you use them. Most of the words listed above are pretty useful, when used in the right place at the right time.

  14. Mark Wenting

    Thanks for doing this review of words that have lost their meaning because of overuse. It will be a challenge for me now to write development proposals without using these words, and if I don’t use them, will proposal reviewers understand what I mean? I guess I will start writing again proposals like I did 30 years ago before many of these words came into being. Maybe we need a list of alternative words to use so we can move forward and make sure all know what we are talking about. Maybe I need to do a ‘deep dive’ on this subject, but I already eliminated this term from my vocabulary.

  15. Teresa

    A real test comes when you translate your materials into other languages – then you really have to work out what the words mean. We struggle with ‘peacebuilding’ in some languages.
    Personal dislikes in addition to those listed are ‘agents of change’, ‘actors’, ‘duty bearers’, ‘exit strategy’, ‘safe space’…

    • Duncan Green

      thanks Teresa, I think there’s a whole discussion to be had on what words do/don’t copy across between languages – words like ‘governance’ and ‘accountability’ often don’t, which is fascinating.

    • Robert Spiegel

      The term peacebuilding was coined in 1975. There are at least four different, disparate and debatable meanings of the term, which I should think would make even more challenging the translation of the term into another language.

  16. Anjali Belur

    Prof. Green,

    Thanks for your thoughtful article. I would have appreciated a short rationale for why you feel each word should be banned– and further, if you have suggestions for language that doesn’t have the same negative implications.

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