AidSpeak: What’s behind the aid industry’s jargon?

by Sasha Alyson

William Easterly, the World Bank economist who became an outspoken critic of aid, once published a blog called The AidSpeak Dictionary.(1) Many people contributed definitions:

accountability for results : we keep all our promises by issuing new promises -@bill_easterly
beneficiaries : the people who make it possible for us to be paid by other people -@monanicoara
empowerment : what is left when all the quantifiable variables give non significant results -@MarianaSarastiM
per diem: what we have to pay local officials to attend our meetings -@Afrophile
participation : the right to agree with preconceived projects or programs -@edwardrcarr
raise awareness : no measurable outcome -@jonathan_welle
sustainable : will last at least as long as the funding -@thejoeturner

Aidspeak continues, although Easterly’s blog does not, so I hope he won’t mind if I recycle the term in a slightly different vein, to look at the jargon of the aid industry, and what it means.


Here’s a popular one: “Transformative.” If you work in development, you’re well familiar with the word and its variants. If not, some examples:

► “Melinda has seen first-hand that empowering women and girls can bring transformational improvements in the health and prosperity of families, communities and societies.” –The Gates Foundation.
(Melinda Gates also tells us that “my role is to make sure that I’m advocating on behalf of, for example, women in Kenya,”(2) which seems quite different from empowering them to speak on their own behalf. Is it transformative anyway?)

► “The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) anticipates that initial investments in infrastructure and associated services will have transformative effects in rural communities by improving livelihoods, health, education, and business skills.” –MVP Handbook.
(The Millennium Villages Project achieved no such effects; it was overblown hype and after that became clear, the project closed up shop and everybody scampered off.)

► “2016 ushers in the official launch of the bold and transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development….” The United Nations.
(Isn’t it better to let others refer to you as bold and transformative, after you’ve exhibited such qualities, rather than complimenting yourself in advance?)

►“GPE launches a bold new brand to transform education.” The Global Partnership for Education
(I surrender. If no one else will call you bold and transformative, you’ve got no choice but to do it yourself.)

► “We made a strategic investment in our proven ability to drive transformative change by incorporating innovation into our everyday work.” –Save the Children
(We’ve shown in other stories — here’s one — how Save the Children deceived donors about an “innovative” program which, privately, it knew was a flop.)

Calling yourself transformational is surely an ego boost, but this term is noteworthy for another reason. It tells us how the speakers view the world.

“Transformative” is nearly always used by those in the West, to describe the impact they wish to have in their former colonies. To be transformative, you must have a lot of power. That comes at the expense of… well, same as before.

“We are transformative” is arrogant, paternalistic, and untrue, all at once. It announces a top-down approach, even as the next paragraph usually mentions community participation. (See the Aidspeak definition of participation, at top.) It reveals a desire to control, a belief in your right to do so, and confidence in your ability to do it well. It shows ignorance of the slow, incremental evolutionary process by which the most beneficial change so often comes about.

To all those who believe the West should have a transformative impact on the Rest: It already did. Once was plenty.

Notes and Sources

  1. Easterly’s original Aidspeak Dictionary can still be viewed on the Internet Archive.
  2. Melinda Gates, interviewed in the New York Times.

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