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.

The Momentum Of The Blogosphere

A bunch of awesome people @ #GV2012 — Source: 0neiros via flickr

Last week the Global Voices 2012 (#GV2012) summit was held in Nairobi. All of a sudden, the city I live and work in was inundated by all manner of awesome people. I kept seeing people I greatly admire talking about lectures and presentations, it was a hell of a treat to see so many intelligent people whose content I enjoy so much all talking together. It felt like a pretty big deal, even from the outside.

Check out a storify on #GV2012 here.

As I hungrily lapped up updates I started to notice a pattern: a lot of these voices whose opinions I so respected were not media professional. They were bloggers. Citizen journalists. Activists. Whether as a result of my embrace of Twitter or some other reason, I realised that my ‘go to’ sources for most news is no longer traditional news sources.

Don’t get me wrong, I still open up The Guardian or the Washington Post most days to flick through it but that’s normally only for sport or for op-ed pieces discussing ‘news’ I’ve already digested through non-traditional means like blogs or social media. There are a notable few journalists that I do follow but most fall into the categories like ‘worth keeping an eye on’ or ‘likes to argue’ or ‘friends’ – not ‘MUST READ’. With some of these – Charles Onyango Obbo is the example that springs to mind – I actively prefer their non-official output to their columns or news pieces in newspapers and the like. This was a slightly startling discovery.

This week I fired up the interwebs to discover that Whydev – one of the best international development sites around – has rebranded (and to everyone involved with that, you did a good job). I got weirdly excited by this. Then I noticed that the excellent View From The Cave had rebranded and, once again, looked great. These are terrific sites run by experts who are both passionate about the field and communicating their experiences and challenges to a wider audience.

These sites are awesome. Now that they look better, more people are likely to get hooked on their kickass content. I take back the ‘weirdly’ from earlier – I am excited by this!

The more we encourage wider engagement with niche or technical sectors the better off we will be. Events like #GV2012 top-trended world wide. Top aid blogs are starting to get attention from mainstream sources. Other top aid blogs now look and work really well. Hopefully, this is an example of snowballing (in a good way).

Getting big name publications to assign the topic a general reporter with no in depth knowledge of the issue or personal connection to it might bring wider attention to the issue but is it the kind of attention that we want? If the development/aid blogosphere continues to grow more robust and more accessible, those mainstream publications will a) start to steal their ‘niche’ article opinions from better sources and b) start to get circumvented all together.

I’ll say it again – I am excited by this!