Words, Damned Words And Terminology


I was reading an online debate –  ‘Assessing race and inequality in international development‘. Despite being a sometimes interesting debate, I was quite taken aback by the first two comments:

development terms

There is a lot of contested vocabulary in international development, I’m aware of that. Most people who have had to fill out a Log Frame cannot stand development buzzwords, even in pursuit of effective participatory innovation (sorry). J – who writes over at AidSpeak – loathes the term ‘do-gooder’ rather than aid/development-worker. It is the stuff of many blogpost and semi-drunken rant in the expat bar, I get that. I had never previously realised that the phrases ‘developing world’ or ‘global south’ were similarly aggravating. I had never thought of them as such – aren’t they both replacement terms, designed to be neutral and inoffensive?

It’s a bit like when I learned that vegans do not eat honey. Who could be offended by eating honey?

I sort of understand why they might be, I suppose (not honey, I’m still unable to wrap my head around that one). Any term like these ones could be seen to generate an ‘us v them’ sort of feeling. Everyone’s read Edward Said. I understand that language can reinforce the perception of otherness and how that can be incredibly harmful. But is anyone seriously suggesting that we cease using any terms like this?

It reminds me of the classic debate of politics students:

What is Europe? Discuss

Is it geographical? Is it cultural? Do we include Turkey and Israel like in Eurovision? Do you have to be in the EU to now be considered Europe? What about Scandinavia? Argumentum ad infinitum, argumentum ad nauseum.

This drives people crazy. It’s never ending. What happens is actual critical language breaks down into a series of discussions that circle the drain of semantics. That might sound fun if you’re studying linguistics; to the rest of us, it makes our reports or essays or articles much more vague and much less persuasive.

Difference isn’t something we can wish away

Donors and beneficiaries are an inextricable fact of the field of international development. As it happens, the global north (there, I said it) gives and the global south receives. That is a fact of the world at the moment. Trying to avoid the issue through skirting around particular phrasing seems nonsensical to me. Of course those phrases make us seem separate. We are. One part of the world has almost all the money and power – that’s something that international development sets out to rectify. The entire field is based on a recognition of inequality but, what, we can’t use phrases that remind anyone of that? Nonsense.

Rather than trying to torture language into a global division-less village, we should concentrate on actually getting some work done to combat inequality. Development doesn’t have to be international, of course, but some problems are too big for communities to effectively combat and lord knows national or governmental solutions are absolutely fraught with issues. Engaging with the people we want to help is a must, I think, be it in terms of racial issues (as the online debate was about) or in terms of gender, disability or, simply, differing cultures.

There will likely always be two groups: those who have and those who have not. Acknowledging this fact does not preclude either side from working together to improve things – Us AND Them, not Us vs Them.

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