Sorry, what did you say?!

Development jargon; a good thing?

I’ve worked in international development now for over sixteen years and, although my wife may dispute this, I feel I’m reasonably intelligent. Yet, I sometimes feel a bit out of my depth when mixing with peers from other development organisations as they all seem to be using a different language. I’m not referring to times when I am in a completely different country and they actually are speaking another language. No, I’m talking about the times when we are all speaking and hearing English and yet I’m a bit unsure as to what they mean. The reason? They are using ‘development jargon’; a strange language forced upon us normal folk from I know not where. Probably from the worlds of economics, academia and business with some original additions from those who’ve immersed themselves in development for much longer than myself.

I recently came across an old post from Chris Blattman who mentioned an International Development Jargon Detector devised by Michael Benedict. It involves a pre-determined list of jargon words. Just upload your document and it will scan and count the number of ‘jargon words’ present. Thus, any brave organisation could test their documents and see how jargon-rich they are. Or is it jargon-poor?

One of Chris’ readers, Jeong Hyun Lee, a Strategic Outreach and Communications Intern with the ‘Economics that Really Matters’ Blog, has produced a number of graphs after studying 49 publications across ten different development organisations. He focused upon some of the biggest organisations, including USAID, World Bank and International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 


From the above graph, we can see that development jargon has increased (doubled) over the last nine years or so. If it is doing so within these organisations, it is most probably increasing in other organisations as well. And, from experience, I would say it is increasing no matter the size of the organisation. Smaller NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are also succumbing.

Now hold on here, we’d better give examples of what these words are before we go any further. Well there’s ‘mainstream’, ‘participatory’, ‘impact’, ‘strategic’, ‘empower’ and so many more. Below shows the words’ average frequency per document as found by Jeong.


So, with its head in front we have ‘accountable’ being challenged by ‘sustainable’, ‘capacity’ and ‘impact’. Leading the chasing pack we have ‘inclusive’, ‘innovation’ and ‘strategic’.

Each of these words is okay in itself, but then we are assuming that they have the same meaning as we would use and that is not always the case. Then,when experts start stringing these words together in sentences, paragraphs and documents; well it can all become just a bit much.

As Jeong Hyun Lee himself says,

Why do we care about the use of jargon in international development? Jargon words cause confusion and misunderstanding to those not expert in a given field of study; they effectively discriminate against non-experts. Moreover, their usage makes information inaccessible to the public, as well as the beneficiaries of development work, who may not be able to understand the implications of the “transparent” publications of world institutions.

Jeong agrees that the most that can be taken out of this research are simply some trends e.g. jargon is on the increase. Certain words have greatly increased in their use over the last few years; the biggest climber being ‘accountable’. That should be good news for donors if the occurrence of that particular word signifies that ‘accountability’ is actually happening. After all, for organisations and individuals to be accountable is good, to have strategic plans is good and for work on the ground to be sustainable is also good.

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I’m involved in a relatively small organisation, Irish Methodist World Development & Relief (WDR). We involve ourselves in relational partnerships around the globe, meaning that we work alongside people who, over time, become friends. As with true friends, we get to the point where none of us has to impress the other. We just try to be honest and speak honestly and clearly to one another. I should also add that they are people who have a proven track record of effective development or service provision on the ground.

Here are my two main fears of overuse of development jargon:

1)    I agree with Jeong Hyun Lee. Jargon can exclude and seem rather elitist. WDR volunteers and supporters must always be able to understand what we are doing, how we are doing it and why. Partners and potential partners must always be able to engage with us without feeling they must play out the role of a development ‘expert’ by using the ‘correct’ lingo.

2)    The use of these terms, many of them quite technical and specific, in my mind, gives the impression that development, the transforming of materially poor communities, is a precise science and even measurable. From experience, I have found it to be anything but this. That measuring of development will have to be the subject of a future blog.

Now, am I brave enough to check out WDR’s documents for jargon? Not sure I am but Chris, Michael and Jeong have certainly made me more alert as to how we use language and how we should try as much as possible to make sure it is the language of inclusion. One thing I do believe, if we are to overcome poverty and injustice, we need to do it together and, to do that, we must be speaking the same language.

NB A summary of Jeong Hyun Lee’s findings can be found here.