I was initially cheering yesterday when I heard about Alan Duncan’s (the UK Development Minister) memo on the use of grammar and jargon inside the Department for International Development.
In fact, when I actually read Alan Duncan’s missive, I was rather disappointed. It seems to me he could go a great deal further and to the great benefit of the vast international development community.
As many of you know I and my colleague Oliver Wates are just back from two weeks in Africa where we were training two different humanitarian organisations.The training was in English but there were regularly 7 – 10 different nationalities in the room with the majority of people working in the their second, third or even fourth language.
As we have noted in many other areas of business (finance, insurance and engineering for example), many people learn the English jargon of their profession but not an English every-day translation.
So for example the phrase ‘vertical transmission of HIV/AIDS’ will trip off the tongue of many a non-native English speaker across Africa. But ask them to express what it means in colloquial English and they look blank.
It is not that they don’t know what it means, it is just that they are mostly unfamiliar with the English vocabulary that would give them the words ‘mother to child transmission’.
The key element of the Duncan memo, for those of us who care about communication rather than correctness, is the point about ‘resilience’.
Resilience in the development world, is all the rage. ‘Building resilience’ is a mantra in many countries. It means making changes that ensure when disaster strikes, individuals, families and communities will cope better or recover faster.
Anything from introducing insurance schemes to improving the structure of the soil for subsistence farmers, counts as building resilience. It often involves planting trees but can also include teaching people how to better treat their sick animals.
The dedicated professionals in the development world have a constant sense of disappointment and frustration that the rest of us do not fully appreciate the great work they do. They don’t understand why the international media, in particular, are constantly highly critical and looking for someone to blame.
But ask development workers from Bangkok to Glasgow (Home of UK’s DfID) to articulate the success stories and most cannot do it. They are likely to say ‘there has been increased resilience amongst the pastoralist communities’. This tells the rest of us absolutely nothing.The stories are there. The successes have been astonishing. But they are articulated in terms that few outsiders would understand.
The day after I landed home, I met an average Daily Mail reader at a friend’s party. He politely asked about my trip and then said ‘the problem is we keep paying and nothing changes does it’. The examples I gave of success in Africa amazed him to the point that he thought I might be lying. ‘I have never heard about any of these things’ he said.
The Development professional would smile wanly and blame the media. I believe the use of jargon, conceptual language, and forgetting the basics of good communication have a lot to answer for.