Jargon of the Whatever

It’s been a long time since I did a jargon of the day post. Years, maybe. Today, though, I offer you a list of useful geographic slang for international development concepts. That doesn’t really make sense, I know. Just skip to the list; you’ll see what I mean:

Geneva Conventions: Govern international law on the treatment of victims of war.

Warsaw Convention: Protects your luggage during air travel, or more accurately, protects airlines from liability for your luggage.

Vienna Convention: Treatment of diplomatic representatives while overseas – aka why USAID cars can’t be stopped by the police unless they want to be.

Copenhagen Convention: 2009 UN agreement on climate change.

Copenhagen consensus: A list of efficient ways to spend development aid, produced by a think-tank in Copenhagen.

Paris declaration: Widely ignored agreement on better donor coordination of aid.

Cairo: The program of action agreed to at the 1994 international conference on population and development. Represented a major shift from thinking about population numbers to thinking about reproductive health.

Alma-Ata: 1978 conference that produced the Alma-Ata declaration which affirmed the importance of primary health care in achieving “health for all.”

Accra Accord: 2008 commitment to promoting south-south trade among developing countries.

Accra Agenda for Action: Widely ignored follow-up to the Paris declaration.

Mexico City Policy: Also known as the global gag rule, an intermittent US government policy that forbade any entity getting US funding from promoting, providing, or even discussing abortion.

Kyoto:  The Kyoto Protocol adopted by the UN in 1997 and intended to fight global warming.

Jargon and Its Discontents

I need advice.

A friend of mine is going to be doing some training for journalists on aid and relief work. She asked me what jargon I think journalists need to know, what aid clichés I hate seeing, and any pet peeves in general on reporting about aid work. I had some answers for her, but I thought I could probably collect a lot more by asking the readers of this blog.

So, let’s hear it: What are the words journalists need to know? What are the words to avoid? And how can journalists find the real stories in the aid world?

Here’s my list, to help start the conversation:

1)      Not paying attention to the money. An aid group’s freedom to act is heavily dependent on their donor funding. It’s easy to blame an aid agency for not doing X, but if they’re funded by OFDA to do Y, then X isn’t an option for them.

2)      Lumping all aid groups together, as though they have the same motivation, skill set, and competency.

3)      Getting hung up on either a savior narrative that focuses on one person as a hero, or a villain narrative, that decides all aid is a failure and picks a single agent as scapegoat.

4)      Declaring aid a success or failure without looking at similar aid efforts in other years or locations for context. Not having an actual idea of what success would consist of, yet still declaring failure.

5)      Spending the whole article giving visual descriptions and leaving out actual content.

6)      Taking donor press releases as gospel. Or, alternately, ignoring them.

(photo credit: jovike)

The Words I Don’t Use

International development is infamous for its constant, jargony, changes in vocabulary. It’s not the third world, it’s the developing world. It’s not the bottom billion, it’s an ascending market. They’re not people living with AIDS (PLWA), they are people living with HIV (PLHIV). It seems ridiculous, because it kind of is, and we all get tired.

But I do believe in the power of words to shape the way we think. It’s easy to laugh at each new acronym update, but vocabulary does affect how we frame things. So there are a few words and phrases I never use, because I think they lead us in the wrong directions:

1) Beneficiaries – I never use this word unless I am contractually obligated to do so. I know that it serves a useful purpose as a standard term for the people a project serves, but I don’t like it. It implies that people are sitting around passively waiting for a savior to help them. No project works if they don’t have partners to make it work. Even handing out lollipops to children requires children who’ll take candy from strangers and parents who’ll permit it and get the children to the lollipop distribution site.

Your partners might be a community, a local government, or a community organization. But those people are not passively benefitting. They are helping make the project happen.

2) Individuals – This word is just a synonym for “people.” But it’s a cold, formal word that helps you forget that the individuals involved are actual human being people.

3) The Poor – Pretending that poor people are a homogenous collective is poor thinking, and dehumanizing. People fall in and out of poverty for a whole range of reasons, and they cope with poverty in different ways. Fighting poverty requires that we recognize that, and terms like “the poor” are a barrier. (That bring said, two great books – The Poor and Their Money, and Portfolios of the Poor – use the phrase.)

4) Africa – Okay, there are appropriate ways to use this proper noun. Like in a discussion of continental geography. Then there are all the other ways: lumping all the nations on the continent together, as though Senegal and Somalia are exactly the same; using “Africa” in the name of your tiny MONGO that works in one village in Uganda; getting confused and lumping China, Russia, and Africa together as though they are equivalent political units. Let’s stop.

Photo credit: thinkretail

Please let’s stop talking about PPPs

As you might guess, I didn’t originally write this post for this blog. But no one else wants it, so I’ll publish the poor orphaned post myself.

The term public-private partnerships don’t get explained much. They partnerships a lot of attention, but it’s such common vocabulary that no one ever stops to explain it. That’s okay, though, because it’s a useless term.

A public-private partnership is any collaboration between public bodies – like a government, the UN, or an NGO – and a business entity. That’s all. Public organization working with a private one. A pharmaceutical company donating drugs to UNICEF or a developing country government. A consulting firm offering free services to the Global Fund. A local government providing start-up capital to a business that may serve a public good.

Personally, I think this piece of jargon has pretty much outlived its usefulness. It doesn’t describe an unusual situation, help corporations understand their role, or serve as an accurate or specific term. We should retire it.

Ten years ago, when private sector business rarely got involved in development, we needed special vocabulary to encourage them. “Public-private partnership” sounds reassuring. “You’re not in this alone, frightened little corporation! You’re in a partnership. The UN will help you, we promise!” The special term helped to normalize business participating in international development efforts.

Now, though, it’s pretty much become the norm. Businesses get involved in international development and global health all the time. They don’t need supportive language to help them understand that they belong. They have decided it’s in their interest to support global health, and that’s pretty much enough to motivate a profit-making entity.

Because it’s the norm, we also don’t need special exclusive language that sets apart business-funded development work from work funded by government or private donors. Those are not the traditional donors any more; people expect that there will be corporate involvement in global health, for example. So we don’t need to single out public-private partnerships as a special case. They’re just one of the many ways that we fund international development work.

It’s also a term that is so general it’s useless. For all that it was supposed to helpfully describe a special kind of health or development effort, instead it’s meaningless. I mean, what if the US government hires an international development company like Casals Associates to implement a development effort? Why isn’t that a public-private partnership?  If Oxfam buys plane tickets for its employees, why is that not a public-private partnership?

The horse has left the barn. The bird has flown the coop, and you can never get those square foam pieces to fit back into the box once you’ve opened it. The corporation has entered the hen house, and it’s pretty much okay with the hens. Public-private partnerships vary, to a huge degree. It’s not useful to try to lump them all together, any more than it is to assume all official development assistance is the same. This new world of business participation in global health needs a new vocabulary to describe it.

Jargon of the Day: NGO, CBO

Jargon: NGO, CBO

Translation: NGO stands for non-governmental organization. CBO stands for community-based organization. The difference between them is that NGOs are generally formally structured organizations, registered with the government. Community based organization is a catch-all for any group of people working together toward a common goal.