Jargon of the day: Cash for Work

I have always thought the phrase “cash for work” was kind of crazy. Isn’t cash for work called employment? In practice, however, cash for work is a specific kind of disaster relief where people affected by the emergency are paid to engage in reconstruction activities. That might include cleaning or rebuilding schools and hospitals, clearing roads, or digging latrines. If well-designed, cash for work programs support the rebuilding of a community and provide a much-needed cash infusion. If badly designed, they can disempower communities by not giving community residents a stake and a voice in how their own space is restored.

Links: jargon, politics, humanitarian relief, and a contest

This glossary is a resource for deciphering development jargon.

The Huffington Post asks if Republicans are better at foreign assistance.

Statistics on humanitarian relief from the excellent new Change.org humanitarian relief blog. I have been very impressed by the blog so far; it’s a great combination of information, editorial, and links to useful resources.

Lastly, I’ll hop on the bandwagon and link to the USAID Development 2.0 Challenge. USAID will award a $10,000 prize for a high-impact use of mobile technology for development. I think this contest will be very interesting to watch – the small prize level should bring out fresh ideas and not just proposals from all the same USAID grantees.

Why I hate the word sustainability

What happens when your intervention is over? When you stop training the doctors, providing the bags of food, or advising the Ministry of Finance? Will anything remain? If something will remain, your project is sustainable. That quality – being designed to continue once the outsider effort ends – is sustainability.

I hate this word because the grammar makes no sense.

I also hate this word because it means so many things to so many different people. The definition I just gave you was the one that I learned from a former boss, the smartest woman in the world. (Seriously, she is. If you had ever met her, you’d agree with me.) Sheila taught me that sustainability isn’t about your project continuing, or even the institution you support or develop. Sustainability is about the change you help bring about being a lasting change. It doesn’t matter if your child health center closes if children continue to get improved medical care.

Other people think other things. Some people think sustainability is about building organizations and institutions that last. A lot of projects think that sustainability is about having a steady supply of new donors; a project is sustainable if it will be able to find a new donor once you stop funding it. MSF, of course, thinks sustainability is irrelevant.

So, I guess I hate the word sustainability because it has no agreed upon-meaning, and it’s a prime example of the kind of jargon that keeps planners from thinking about the details of what they want to do.

Edited to add: Jeff Trexler reminds me that I left out an entire set of meanings for the word sustainable. One of its most common usages is as part of the phrase “sustainable development.” Sustainable development refers to development which occurs without damage to the environment, culturally appropriate, and continues on its own once begun (according some combination of the criteria I defined above).

Edited again: Owen Barder has his own take on what’s wrong with sustainability.

Jargon of the day: FSN

Jargon: FSN

Translation: This is a US embassy acronym that stands for “Foreign Service National.” It’s the term for someone from the host country who works for the US Government.

(Here is something to know. FSNs very often have serious authority. Not soft power, or unofficial power, or the ability to influence someone. Real job-based power to make major decisions about your project. If you are the kind of jerk who assumes that you should focus on the American and not the FSN, I guarantee you will regret it.)

Jargon of the day: CTO

Jargon: CTO

Translation: This is a USAID term, as far as I know. CTO stands for cognizant technical officer. The cognizant technical officer is the representative of the contracting officer and responsible for the day-to-day management of a grant or contract. The CTO approves your workplan, approves your key personnel, and manages the various types of bureaucracy that affect your project. As a rule, you can assume your CTO is on your side and wants your project to succeed and look good doing it. Considering how much time and energy they will put into managing your project, he or she will be as emotionally invested in its success as you are. They will be your advocate with the other actors in the USAID bureaucracy.

Things I believe in #14 – writing all your documents in clear, simple language

There are two big reasons that clear writing is important. First of all, it lets as many people as possible understand what you have to say. Secondly, writing clearly forces you to think clearly; it improves the quality of your ideas.

Using jargon-free writing appeals to the largest possible audience. Experts in your field can still comfortably read your reports, but non-experts can understand them, too. It takes a little more work to find understandable terminology for technical ideas, but doing your best is well worth it. Your donors, staff members, and the people you serve probably don’t have the background to read a jargon-dense article, and these are your most important audiences. There may be a few highly-targeted documents that need to be heavy on technical terms, but even then you can still write well.

Using jargon-free writing also forces you to think about what you’re saying. Jargon makes people’s attention – even your own – slide away. If you write that you are going to “include stakeholders in decision-making,” you don’t have to stop and think about who, exactly, you will include or how you’ll make them part of your decisions. Jargon is an obstacle to good planning. Clear, specific language, on the other hand, leads to clear, specific thinking and plans.

(Here’s a tip: if you are so far into the belly of the beast that you can’t tell what is jargon any more, read your writing out loud. Anything that stumbles off your tongue should be removed.)