Taking British politics, jargon and colonialism out of our language
Image: Jackline, 19, South Sudanese refugee in Uganda took part in Plan International’s youth consultations. © Plan International
Maryam Mohsin, media manager at Bond, is leading a project to review and update some of the language that is commonly used in the international development sector. It’s time, she says, for change.
When your objective is trying to change something, it’s tricky to know where to start. Do you first try and change what you do, or should you start by changing what you say?
The risk of doing the latter first is that it could lead to a false sense of “mission accomplished” without really digging deep and addressing why the change needs to be made. As we know, walking the talk is the hard bit. The inevitable answer is that you must do a bit of both.
This is exactly what Bond has been working on. How can we live our values through our work, policies, and how we communicate and treat others? It has been a turbulent year for our sector, and I am not even going to begin to mention a certain pandemic.
We have seen incredible social shifts that speak to the issues we hold dear – the death of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement putting sexual harassment, violence, and gender inequality to the fore, #CharitySoWhite, #ShowTheSalary, #ShiftThePower – all of these critical issues have gathered momentum and have made it clear that no sector, including ours, is immune from the changes so desperately needed if we are to create a fair, just and equal society.
As a membership-based organisation, this obviously includes Bond. We are in the process of getting our “house in order” on a range of issues, from salary transparency, equity and safeguarding, to positive action on diversity and inclusion.
The area of work that I have been driving internally, with support from colleagues at Bond, from the UK NGO sector and from international civil society groups, is around our language.
It has been a thought-provoking process, and we still have some way to go, but we have made good progress.
Here are a few things we have learnt so far:
“Aid,” “beneficiaries” and “developing countries” have to go
These are the top three words we no longer want to use. Are these also in your top three? If yes, then I am glad we agree, if not, send me an email and I will keep the tally going.
The problem is, despite being great at saying what we want to get rid of, it is much harder to find acceptable universal alternatives, so here is an attempt (suggestions welcome).
“Aid” is an outdated concept that does not reflect the breadth of the work we deliver, nor the complexity. It suggests countries are helpless and in need of handouts rather than fairness, livelihoods, infrastructure, health systems and support, amongst many other things. At Bond, we are going to make a concerted effort to use “development” and/or “humanitarian assistance” instead.
Thankfully, most of us at Bond wince when we hear the word “beneficiaries” and have been avoiding any language that dehumanises or removes people’s agency. We instead use terms such as “the communities we work with,” “people who have been marginalised” or “project participants.”
“Developing countries” was ditched long ago by the World Bank, and is widely disliked for being outdated, subjective and patronising. As the Sustainable Development Goals make clear, living in a healthy, just, safe, and sustainable planet should be everyone’s goal, and inequality and poverty can exist anywhere.
The conclusion we have reached is to be as specific and accurate as possible when taking about other countries and use “lower income countries” or “world’s most fragile states”.
Ditch the jargon and false claims
As a sector, we use too much jargon. This excessive use of buzzwords and acronyms, with zero context makes our work inaccessible, creates barriers and excludes people, especially the public or policymakers. We need to stop using terms like “localisation,” “innovation,” “capacity building”.
As a sector we have also been guilty of giving the UK credit for showing leadership/continued leadership on a range of issues that we would in fact “like” the UK to show leadership on. There are exceptions, such as the level of investment the UK makes into tackling infectious disease, and we should be proud of this. But is the UK showing leadership right now on gender-based violence or on girls’ education or climate change? Claims of “UK leadership” must be backed by evidence before we make them, otherwise we are simply flattering egos and perpetuating myths.
Development and humanitarian assistance are political. But our language should remain nonpartisan
Political parties will come and go, but inequalities will remain if our language begins to mirror that of the people in power, especially if the intentions behind the rhetoric are disingenuous.
A good example of this is “Global Britain” or “aid in the national interest” or even “Build Back Better”. Nobody would disagree that the UK being an outward-looking nation, working in partnership with others for the global good, would be a noble cause, or that Covid-19 has pushed millions of people into poverty and the UK should work with others to tackle this global pandemic.
However, how these political phrases translate into action is out of our hands and can’t be controlled. Can we really be confident that by using similar language, mirroring the language of power, we can change the rhetoric?
It’s also impossible to ignore that some of these phrases, intentionally or unintentionally, hark back to colonialism and tied aid. They do not reflect the present or future, where the British public and NGOs want to see development assistance going to the people who need it the most rather than towards the UK’s short term political or economic endeavours.
Even the above three reflections will spark lots of debate, and every organisation will have its own journey and perspective. In no way does Bond expect this approach to work for everyone. But for Bond – we need to practise what we preach, if we are to have legitimacy and influence, and it is important that we aim to set the bar high for ourselves and encourage others to do the same.