Development Jargon

It has been awhile since writing one of these. Recently I, Shaun, have been so busy writing personal statements and policy essays for graduate schools that I have not felt much like writing anything else. However, I was inspired today by a series I have been following on the guardian’s global development site called jargon decoded.

In the field of development we often use a lot of fancy words that have very dubious meanings. I have come up against this problem recently when asking others to review my personal statements and I thought it might make for a funny post. So without further ado I will break down some of the more common development terms.

Sustainable livelihoods: According to Samuel Johnson’s greatest invention, Google, the definition of livelihoods is: “A means of securing the necessities of life”. In the general development context though, livelihoods is (possibly incorrectly) used to describe a way of helping people to generate income. The problem with the word livelihoods is that it has overtones of subsistence. It hints that poor people should only have enough just to live – not to thrive. As Kate Magro says: “Why is it that Westerners have careers, jobs, employment opportunities and everyone else has a livelihood?”

Example: The Livelihoods Development (LD) program carries out field projects and related support activities that develop sustainable livelihoods and reduce poverty using bamboo and rattan in order to help support the achievement of national and regional development objectives. (That must be some crazy-ass bamboo and rattan!)

Civil society: While the BBC world service has devoted a 12 part series to defining the term; the World Bank’s definition is a little easier to swallow. It can be thought of as an umbrella term linking together any civic or social organization operating on a not-for-profit basis. Community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations all fit under the term ‘civil society’.

So forget the multiple meanings ascribed to the term, civil society offers a crucial mechanism through which state obstacles can be bypassed and real change effected.

Local ownership: Local ownership can be traced back to a 1996 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that called for “local ownership of the development process”, while this is still a moderately new term it has developed some conflicting meanings. While local ownership is ideally about empowering communities to collaborate in addressing the challenges they face. By developing and implementing strategies themselves, they’re able to take control of their own destiny. However, in reality donors, aid agencies, and other external actors design and fund the projects; local people just implement them.

Capacity building: The clue for this one is right there in the title: “building” implies an ongoing process, not the finished article. In theory, capacity building is about giving people the wherewithal – the knowledge, skills, and resources – to shape their own development. In practice, it goes on ad infinitum – quite handy when it comes to keeping the NGO community in gainful employment. Like local ownership, capacity building came into its own as a concept during the 1990s. In a nutshell, local ownership and capacity building are the Beavis and Butthead of the development world: not only can you not have one without the other, both border on the incomprehensible.

Put it like this: local ownership is about empowering communities, but communities can’t be empowered if people and institutions don’t have the required knowhow, abilities and support mechanisms – or, if you like, capacity.

Sustainable development: Sustainable development can be thought of has the holy grail of development terms. It is the panicle of perfection for which we all strive for and will never reach. While hard and fast definitions of this term can be even more elusive than any of the others I happen to like most the Brundtland commission’s 1987 declaration that sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

In the end if you ever run across a development term that you can’t seem to wrap your head around just remember the first rule of development jargon: if you can’t explain a concept clearly, swiftly reference something even more obscure and arcane, lest you should start dwelling on things. Alternatively, reduce said concept to a ludicrous acronym, like ICB or CCB (intuitional capacity building and community capacity building, respectively).


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