It’s time to put an end to supremacy language in international development
The words we use in NGOs and aid agencies draw imaginary lines between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ stifling our imagination.
“Ex-pats,” “the field,” “target population,” “frontline worker,” “intervention,” “hardship allowance,” “beneficiaries,” “social capital,” “returns on investment.”
Every industry has its own jargon and code-words that make up a ‘universe of discourse’ to guide behavior - a common set of terms and symbols designed to share experiences, enable collaboration and create new worlds. The foreign aid industry is no different, but why do those of us who work in it continue to rely on a discourse that reeks of colonialism, militarism and capitalism?
At a 2018 Civil Society Forum at the Aryaduta Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, I witnessed a representative from a Western foundation ‘shush’ his chosen “grantees” and declare that his agency’s new strategy would now “put them in the driver’s seat.” That’s nice, I thought, but hang on a minute - why do people need to be ‘allowed’ to sit in the driver’s seat of their own lives? Shouldn’t they be in charge of that decision for themselves?
The metaphors we use lay bare the pervasive biases of Western superiority. As in this case, it’s often foreigners who get to choose the car, assign the driver, and decide who gets to ride along for the journey. Empowerment becomes another gift from above on terms that are still ultimately dictated by the donor. What’s really going on here, and how can we put it right?
For starters, most global development discourse is conducted in English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. While the reality of ‘linguistic imperialism’ isn’t going to go away, we can be much more intentional in incorporating the richness of local languages into the systems we use, including learning about concepts that don’t translate easily and hearing from people who don’t speak any of the colonist languages at all.
But whichever language we use, the words we select have ‘steering effects’ on roles and relationships, power differentials, and how activities and priorities get valued or ignored. At present, the many familiar terms and concepts in common use don’t set the stage for community-led development. They preclude co-creation among equals by impeding the recognition of people as experts of the own worlds, skewing power dynamics, and eroding the potential of independent, self-directed collective action.
Different words create a particular mindset for action, and those mindsets leave a powerful legacy for good or for ill. Here are four sets of examples to show what I mean.
Words: ex-pats (from the ‘fatherland’), posting, the field, beneficiaries, women in development, indigenous (misused to refer to people of color or domestic organizations in low- or middle-income countries).
Mindset: separating, distancing, dominating, extracting and hoarding riches, and justifying actions by ‘othering.’
Legacy: colonial, imperial, unequal, patriarchal.
Words: target population, frontline worker, deployment, intervention, force multiplier, program officer, temporary duty travel, HQ, danger pay and hardship allowance, ground truth, deadline, after action review.
Mindset: hard power, soft forms of violence, dehumanizing ‘them’ while reinforcing ‘us’ in order to justify actions and band together in order to prevail.
Words: developing country, beneficiary, disability-adjusted life years, social capital, impact investing, return on investment, doing well by doing good, win-win, value-added, cost sharing, gender audit, last mile, trickle-down, consultation with customers to create better products.
Mindset: profit and revenue, wealth is power, size is everything, free markets and cheap goods eventually benefit everyone, business models are the most efficient and effective way to get things done, regulations inhibit success, every human interaction is transactional, competition is essential because capital and customers are limited.
Legacy: capitalism as we currently know it.
Words: log frame, compliance, protocols, facts on the ground, outputs, standardization, luddite, division of labor, professionalization, five-year plan, ‘lot quality assurance sampling’ (a way to divide ‘beneficiaries’ into ‘lots’ to test ‘output quality’).
Mindset: Controlling and standardizing the means of production, engineering, efficiency, people as replaceable cogs in a machine, measurable outputs.
Legacy: Industrial Revolution, technology, and technocracy
As these examples show, the words we choose (or use unconsciously) both stem from and reinforce particular visions, worldviews and ways of doing things. In the aid industry these ways of doing things - and measuring, valuing and prioritizing between them - are overwhelmingly rooted in colonialism, capitalism and control, or what I think of as ‘supremacy thinking.’
Today’s insidious market mentality, the continuation of great-power geopolitics and the military-industrial complex, and the unequal legacies of colonialism have molded a near-universal discourse of international development that is essentially this: that investments + transactions = impact. The ‘white savior industrial complex’ contributes feel-good language and heart-tugging photos to soften the cold calculus of this underlying equation.
They say that love makes the world go around, but apparently the development sector didn’t get the memo. Where is the wisdom of millennia of diverse discourses that delivered wonders of the world in art, literature, music and dance, in myriad cuisines, ancient and modern medicines and generations of thriving communities? Where are the brilliant insights and innovations that happen in the human family worldwide every day that are unrelated to geopolitics or war or consumerism?
The political, military, and economic systems that rule the world are producing growing hunger, conflict, inequity, climate injustice and other crises. These systems can’t articulate a new vision, let alone produce the enormous changes that are long overdue. That failure rests on a series of legacies that grow from mindsets that are produced and sustained by the words we use in everyday conversation and decision-making.
So a good starting point for transformation is to drop the language of supremacy and the mental models that accompany it so that we can re-imagine new ways to come together and act. In which case, what’s the alternative?
My best work experiences came from my Peace Corps days in the late 1980s, when I taught high school in rural Botswana. The first Setswana sentence we learned was Ke kopa metsi - “I am asking for water.” Our teacher earnestly told us that the water was clean, and we could go into any compound at any time and get some.
Eventually, many years later, I realized that I’d completely missed the point. In Setswana culture there’s a treasured code of conduct called Batho, which means “people.” Like East Africa’s Ubuntu, the idea is that in order to be a person, you must “people.” This is required; it’s humanizing and a constant source of joy, and it includes exchanging polite greetings with everyone you pass; offering elders and teachers a small bow and a hand clap; walking visitors halfway home; and when walking yourself, not passing between two people who are walking together.
I finally realized that people often ask for water not due to thirst, but to enjoy a Batho moment.
The closest equivalent I’ve found in English is “mutuality” - defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “the sharing of a feeling, action, or relationship between two or more parties.” Mutuality is different than ‘win-win,’ karma (as popularly used), or even ‘pay it forward. Those terms all imply transactions that pay off at some point in your own self-interest.
By contrast, mutuality means that you do things for, and share things with, people, because that’s what people do. You also accept help from others, working out a code for doing these things with dignity, respect, and joy. Because that’s who we want to be, together.
Today’s institutionalized power dynamics in international development make the practice of mutuality well-nigh impossible. But if that’s where we want to head, then across countries and organizations and governments and communities we’ll need to co-create our own code of behavior - and match it with a radically-different language.
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