Language Matters: Core Concepts in Equity-Based Reform in Global Development

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Authors: Dr. Allysha C. Maragh-Bass, Dr. Tamar Chitashvili

Anyone who is serious about contributing to the movement for more equitable development must come to terms with the language of the sector. Why? Because the development sector is filled to the brim with jargon, much of which is problematic and rooted in the extractive and colonial legacy of Global North-led institutions. The jargon is problematic and overly specialized at best and white supremacist and harmful at worst. They can also be a source of miscommunication when they are used as shorthand for complex and nuanced concepts or when they are used interchangeably and inconsistently, to say nothing of the fact that the majority of it (including this very blog) requires English fluency as the price of entry.

These issues were part of our working group’s impetus and the TIME initiative. We came together to reflect on the challenge of how we talk amongst each other, with a clear understanding that we can’t engage with transformational change if we don’t know what is even meant by those terms. The goal of our working group has been to figure out how to come to a shared understanding of the language and core concepts at the heart of the conversation about why and how global development must be transformed for greater equity.

Playing Semantics—Can Words Catalyze Change?

Representatives from 11 international NGOs began the work of identifying core concepts in May 2023.

Our first challenge was to come up with a list of terms to focus on. Our initial list was 34 words, but because of the extent of our need to define the terms and their challenges, we shortened the list to eight. We prioritized terms that were (a) cross-cutting; (b) egregious and harmful; and/or (c)have the most potential for catalyzing transformative discussion and change.

The first five terms—locally-led development, localization, power-shift, power-share, decolonization—were chosen because our team had witnessed their interchangeable usage when discussing cross-cutting transformation of the sector. We have also all witnessed the confusion and misunderstanding they can cause. The final three terms—equitable partnership, local organization, shared leadership—were chosen because they have the potential to catalyze change.

From the start, we have acknowledged and referred to the growing number of lexicon guides in the sector (including ones we ourselves have inputted on). These guides often explain why a word is problematic and offer alternatives to use. In the case of our working group, however, we felt that a unique and necessary contribution was instead to focus on contextualizing how the words should be used to communicate, rather than simply what the words are. We have asked ourselves three main questions:

These simple questions have not always been simply answered. In the end, we have spent as much of our time recognizing how language can act as a barrier to progress as thinking of ways to use it as a tool to build trust and provoke change. We have collated our thinking and work into Understanding the Language We Use.

Balancing Nuance with Broader Understanding

The process of doing the work has been challenging. Our group has struggled to balance the complexities of nuance and legitimacy with the value of developing a common lexicon.

When drafting plain language definitions of the chosen terms, the question of legitimacy has come up quite often. We have constantly debated the question of who needs to be included to achieve our goals.

Those of us in the global development space have often perpetrated and experienced the breakdowns in communication that occur when we dismiss the issue of terminology as just semantics. Our working group is made up of global professionals from many countries, and as such, reflects the importance of understanding the nuanced meanings behind the language we use. We reflect on these issues in part as related to our positionality, i.e., our sociopolitical identities that directly impact our worldview, perspectives, and cultural references. We acknowledge openly that even with our global diversity, most of our group had privileges based on factors including but not limited to social class, education level, race, and/or heteronormative identity.

We also openly acknowledge that it is a disservice to presume that because we work in the same space, we understand the same meanings in terms. Further, due to colonial legacies, while many of us speak English fluently, English-based connotations to terms and their origins are problematic and require intentional interrogation just as much as the words themselves. Diversity, equity, and inclusion, for instance, have a racial connotation in the United States, which is absent in African countries and instead may refer to other groups, such as men who have sex with men. All of this is to say that we learned the hard way to say what we mean, ask for feedback, and encourage others not to skip over the process of meaning checks with partners and in groups.

Any lexicon is a living, breathing thing that reflects the positionality and lenses of the group that creates it. Any true shared meaning and language will always require discussion with partners. We openly acknowledge the bias of our work related to English-language connotations and the limitations of having sister INGOs work on this list together without the direct engagement of community partners and stakeholders who represent the perspectives of the countries and subject areas in which we work.

Understanding How We Use the Language We Use

Along the way, through discussion and debate, we developed a set of insights on how to use language effectively.

Our overarching takeaway is that there is no such thing as a universal language. Every new gathering of people is different. Imagine what would happen if we decided to transparently explain and contextualize the language we use every time there are different voices in the room—how would that change the conversation?

Words can either be part of the problem or part of the solution because they are a direct reflection of our principles and beliefs. But they can also be a valuable tool for progress. Words reflect the principles we believe in. If we are intentional, specific, and transparent about how we use them, they can provoke us to think about doing things differently and help—not hinder—us to have the important conversations necessary for real and lasting change.

This blog is part of the TIME Working out Loud Learning Collection. More stories and publications can be found here.