De-leveraging jargon in the aid business

Jargon pervades corporate culture. The development business is no exception. As the year draws to a close I share with you the jargon that I have heard from meetings and conferences in my line of work – aid for trade and the green economy. The language is the same as used in the private sector, as is its effect. Jargon excludes people from the conversation and makes meetings less effective and efficient.


Sorry, what did you say? (Pic: Michael Keen, Flickr)

Whilst some (not all) development planners use jargon, “beneficiaries” of aid do not. By beneficiaries, I mean people using aid money at the ground level for development such as agronomists working in a coffee cooperative or  health workers vaccinating a village. People in the field are outside the corporate environment but are also in challenging situations and they have to communicate well in order to get things right. Advising a farmer how to plant a crop on time or a health worker to vaccinate the right group of people is best done in language that everyone understands. In the same way, a soldier leading his men into battle, will try to give clear orders of what to do rather than employ words like “leverage” and “knowledge space”.

Imagine an adviser talking jargon-filled gobbledigook to a farmer

“This year the rains arrived on time. This means you can Segway into planting beans, leverage higher yields and onsell to local touchpoints”.

The farmer will get nothing from the adviser. It is in both their interest that communication is clear and in a language both understand. The adviser has nothing to gain from talking tripe.

Corporate cultures however, be it the private or public sector, do not always encourage people to be clear, to say “I don’t know” or “what do you mean”. This displays weakness, uncertainty and lack of complete knowledge. Jargon allows people to dissimulate their lack of knowledge, to obscufate, to avoid taking a position and risk offending others. The further benefit of using jargon is that it affords membership of an exclusive club (with other executives) with its own language.

The downside to all this is that we end up having too many ineffective meetings and ones that exclude people who can not use the buzzwords of the month. Jargon gets in the way of identifying what the problems are and how to solve them. It slows the conversation down whilst we wade through a treacle of confusion instead of dancing through ideas and clear rationale. Clearing out some of the jargon would be a useful first step to making things work more effectively and efficiently.

Top jargon from the development business in 2013

  • leverage that!
  • touchpoints
  • onsell
  • granular level
  • entry point
  • Going forward
  • Segwaying into the institutional lense
  • Smart ways to leverage each other
  • Work a la mode in the 21st century
  • Value proposition
  • Leveraging first mover advantage
  • Impact pathway
  • Network capital
  • Compound the knowledge space
  • Creating synergies
  • Metrics are emerging as a significant modality of international cooperation
  • Geometry of options
  • Scoping internally
  • Mezzanine level is as important as the sector level
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