Mbabane, Swaziland | 18 Dec 2013
When you hear the word “stakeholders” do you also get the image of a group of grown men and women sitting at a table, all leaning in, hands and fingers stretched out, clutching a big piece of juicy steak? Probably a prime cut of sirloin or maybe a big porterhouse.
Around the table, the Steak Holders sit, discussing plans and strategising campaigns. Wristbands and T-shirts are usually high on the agenda, followed shortly thereafter by partnership opportunities.
This discussion on partnership opportunities is not to be underestimated. It can open the door for more Steak Holders to join the table, allowing more people – or strategic players as they might be called – to get their paws on that succulent cut of cooked beast.
All this is very serious business and it is not a forum for the faint hearted or the impatient. If one member of the group loses his or her grip on the meat, he or she is dismissed from the room, banished into the wilderness, flung into exile where they will live out their days in the land of vegetarians and vegans; a punishment that no true Steak Holder could ever wish for.
It seems one can’t attend a meeting these days without enduring a lengthy discussion on stakeholders.
Who are they? What are they? Who should they be? What can they bring to the table (apart from steak knives).
The big question, though, usually settles on: Do they have money? (Although instead of the word money, “resource mobilisation” might be used.)
Steak Holders with money are very strategic. They bring the pepper sauce and seasoning to the table, sprinkling their goodies onto the meat in the middle.
These strategic stakeholders can help with any number of things: water bottles, colourful ribbons, and, not to be forgotten, wristbands and T-shirts.
This image that springs to mind, of the Dignified Steak Holders sitting around the table, usually includes all the big players. There are representatives from government, from business, from the NGO sector.
Media practitioners — or maybe journalists — are also there. Civil society leaders are there too, though they are often left wondering where “the people” are.
Basically, what I’m asking is: Are we using the word stakeholders too much? Are we using it too liberally?
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that if stakeholders were a currency it would be inflated not unlike the Zimbabwean dollar.
The word has not become useless. But words, when used too much and in all sorts of varying contexts, tend to lose meaning or come to mean everything to everyone. This can then make it tricky to use the word in a manner in which people understand on first hearing.
I fear for this word. I fear its glory days are behind it.
But it’s not too late. It is not too late to refrain from using it at every meeting. There is still time to breathe life into a word that, surely, once upon a time, meant something more.
If we are to continue using this word — which makes us all want to lean in and grab ahold of that juicy cut of prime sirloin or porterhouse — let us make sure there’s enough steak to go around.
This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland