Filed under: Development


Language is important. George Orwell said that “sloppy language is a sure sign of insincerity or sloppy thought.”  So what of the modern-day perils of poor language?

In recent years it has become apparent that the abstract and opaque language of the financial services sector has – in part – enabled the proliferation of complex (and when misunderstood, dangerous) derivatives and other financial instruments to undo financial stability and growth.

The fact that so few people understood some of these complex instruments (including many economists) has contributed to the term “the real economy” entering widespread public usage to describe the part of the economy which actually made things and provided services. (Check out the BBC’s jargon buster for key financial terms.)

So what of development agencies? Well, they are not immune from the perils of linguistic abstraction. This matters a great deal because development agencies of all sizes have – quite rightly – committed themselves to the highest levels of transparency and accountability.

Clarity of language is particularly important for an organization like UNDP, which seeks to bring about change through the transfer of knowledge and the development of capacities with relatively modest resources. This development model requires a clear, compelling narrative and the organization is now making strides toward this objective.

At the Busan 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness this past December, UNDP’s Administrator committed – along with the heads of the other United Nations agencies, the European Union, the World Bank and others – to publish operational data related to development assistance so that the public can assess the agencies’ effectiveness and efficiency.

Groups like Publish What you Fund have been pivotal in getting us to this point, with the result that enormous amounts of data on development assistance are now circulating in the public domain – with all the associated scrutiny this implies.

Publishing data is a very positive step, but there is an equal imperative to effectively describe what is being done, what is being achieved, and – when things don’t work out – what is being learned.

In this age of austerity where aid-effectiveness is being demanded not only by politicians but by the tax-paying public, the development community needs clear, compelling narratives more than ever.

Language that lacks specificity – soft verbs like “mainstream,” “catalyze,” “invigorate” or “incubate”  – often fails to make the distinction between assistance provided (input) and result (outcome); which complicates efforts to communicate those results.

Donors are understandably skeptical of glorious sounding reports without the content or detail to justify the claims.

In short, a good development outcome is a clear development outcome underpinned by a thorough understanding of local needs, dynamics and sensitivities and delivered with a clear view to promoting sustainability and resistance to shocks, long after the assistance period ends.

Much development assistance takes place in very complex environments and understanding and coming to terms with that complexity is critical (See: Sustainable development and coming to terms with complexity).

For this reason UNDP invests increasing resources into needs assessments, context analyses and other tools that help us understand the nature of the issues we’re dealing with. Indeed, UNDP supports an increasing number of development projects in very complex and volatile environments such as in Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities and in Georgia’s breakaway regions.

With a clear understanding of this complexity, it is still possible to tell clear stories in complex environments (See: UNDP’s work in Cyprus for a number of clear examples).

In short, the development community will not be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the assistance it provides, nor the relevance of that assistance to people’s lives or to a country’s future unless we continue to embrace clear communication without fear that we are “dumbing-down” or over-simplifying complex issues.

The success of the Plain English Campaign in working with bureaucracies to transform their use of language shows that even the most Byzantine of bodies is capable of transforming (and improving) the way it communicates.

Likewise, some of the most prolific commentators on politics and development – people like Fareed Zakaria – are able to cut through complexity with clear, accessible language.

If development agencies continue to put a premium on clarity and simplicity, then we can simultaneously demonstrate the value and effectiveness of assistance, and along the way ensure the term “real development” never enters circulation.