Jargon hurts the poor

Mbabane, Swaziland | 13 August 2014
Bill Snaddon

“Gender-sensitive multi-sectoral capacity building facilitates knowledge sharing and engages stakeholders in inclusive green growth.”

If you understand that sentence, says journalist Floyd Whaley, you probably work in the world of international development.

If you do not understand the sentence, he adds, “you are part of the rest of the world that is essentially locked out of understanding much of the publicly funded work of international development organizations”.

Whaley could have said that even if you do work in international development, it is no guarantee that you will grasp the meaning behind that sentence. And even if English is your first language, one can still be flapping in the wind.

Let me be blunt: English is my first language and, despite my young years, I am not totally unfamiliar with the “international development sector” – and I have no idea what that sentence means.

Now, either I am extremely stupid (which is always a possibility) or I am so offended by the ugly jargon – which is usually invented by English-speaking bureaucrats posing as academics – that it forces me to risk looking dumb in order to be honest in saying I don’t know what it means.

Whaley, who covers stories on international aid for various news agencies, wrote an opinion piece earlier this year called “Jargon hurts the poor”. The article is found on a website called Asian Development Blog.

“In the age of digital communications, and freedom of information, producing reports that are laden with development jargon and technical language is the equivalent of writing in a secret code that can only be read by the wealthy, powerful and educated,” says Whaley.

One might add that this vague and fluffy jargon helps to preserve the jobs of those who use it the most. That is to say: those who pretend to understand it the most.

(I say “pretend to understand” because in many ways it is impossible to fully understand something that has no – or little – meaning.)

Indeed, as Whaley suggests, it’s like a secret club, even if you don’t know you’re in it.

Reading a sentence full of jargon is like biting into a chunk of meat and finding only bone. Not only does it hurt the teeth, there is a lingering disappointment – an emptiness.

This analogy only works if you’re not a vegetarian. In which case you probably wouldn’t be biting into that slab of meat in the first place.

Though I think I have just stumbled across the reason why so many vegetarians work in international development – no meat on the bone makes for a diet full of jargon. (No offence to my vegetarian friends and family members, I still love you.)

Whaley continues his biting article by outlining the negative effects of jargon. It needs repeating.

“Using jargon … makes international development information inaccessible to students, as well as researchers who do not have expertise in the area.

“Jargon inhibits journalists from understanding and sharing information about development. Jargon slams the door on young people and the elderly who are interested in learning more about development.

“Jargon blocks information from girls and women in developing countries, many of whom face societal and institutional barriers to education, particularly higher education. Jargon allows some experts to hide their ignorance. Reciting a jargon-laden sentence is much easier than trying to grasp and explain the underlying concepts.”

Of course there is no single or simple way to overcome this attachment to jargon, which feeds on the language like a cancer. But if I were to offer one unoriginal and un-innovative idea, it would be to ensure languages are taught well at schools so kids grow up with the knowledge to combat the meaningless jargon when they spot it.

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on 13 August 2014

#34_Jargon hurts the poor_13 Aug 2014

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