It’s time to put an end to supremacy language in international development

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The words we use in NGOs and aid agencies draw imaginary lines between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ stifling our imagination.

an article by Ann Hendrix-Jenkins

“Ex-pats,” “the field,” “target population,” “frontline worker,” “intervention,” “hardship allowance,” “beneficiaries,” “social capital,” “returns on investment.”

Every industry has its own jargon and code-words that make up a ‘universe of discourse’ to guide behavior – a common set of terms and symbols designed to share experiences, enable collaboration and create new worlds. The foreign aid industry is no different, but why do those of us who work in it continue to rely on a discourse that reeks of colonialism, militarism and capitalism?

At a 2018 Civil Society Forum at the Aryaduta Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, I witnessed a representative from a Western foundation ‘shush’ his chosen “grantees” and declare that his agency’s new strategy would now “put them in the driver’s seat.” That’s nice, I thought, but hang on a minute – why do people need to be ‘allowed’ to sit in the driver’s seat of their own lives? Shouldn’t they be in charge of that decision for themselves?

The metaphors we use lay bare the pervasive biases of Western superiority. As in this case, it’s often foreigners who get to choose the car, assign the driver, and decide who gets to ride along for the journey. Empowerment becomes another gift from above on terms that are still ultimately dictated by the donor. What’s really going on here, and how can we put it right?

For starters, most global development discourse is conducted in English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. While the reality of ‘linguistic imperialism’ isn’t going to go away, we can be much more intentional in incorporating the richness of local languages into the systems we use, including learning about concepts that don’t translate easily and hearing from people who don’t speak any of the colonist languages at all.

But whichever language we use, the words we select have ‘steering effects’ on roles and relationships, power differentials, and how activities and priorities get valued or ignored. At present, the many familiar terms and concepts in common use don’t set the stage for community-led development. They preclude co-creation among equals by impeding the recognition of people as experts of the own worlds, skewing power dynamics, and eroding the potential of independent, self-directed collective action.

Different words create a particular mindset for action, and those mindsets leave a powerful legacy for good or for ill. Here are four sets of examples to show what I mean. (…)

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