Is the Buzzword mightier than the Sword?

December 1, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

‘When ideas fail, words come in very handy’. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

By coincidence, I’ve been doing a lot of seminar-ing this last week, mostly under Chatham House rules (see previous post). When you’re sat in a room full of policy wonks, one of the more enjoyable pastimes is jotting down all the new candidates for development ‘buzzwords’. This week brought up some new ones (at least to me): ‘feral cities’; ‘choice edit’ (what advertisers, supermarkets, governments etc do to consumers); ‘happy 21st’ (possible outcome for this Century); the ‘red card test’ (will governments accept rulings that go against them?); ‘celanthropists’ (Bono, Geldof et. al.) and so on.

Apart from being fun (and keeping you awake in seminars), these phrases can be very effective – they sum up an idea and stick in the mind of the chattering classes and decision makers; they form an essential part of the currency of debate. The current daddy buzzword is probably ‘Bottom Billion’, coined by Paul Collier in his book of the same name, which has rapidly passed into common usage to describe the roughly billion people who live below a dollar a day or (misleadingly) is used simply as a synonym for sub-Saharan Africa.

Oxfam generates a few of these – ‘rigged rules and double standards’, although a mouthful, proved an accurate and effective five word summary of the international trading system. I’m hoping that ‘active citizens and effective states’, the central theme of From Poverty to Power, will also prosper in the wonk marketplace.

So what determines which buzzwords thrive and which sink without trace? The best thing I’ve read on this is ‘Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse’, by Andrea Cornwall, part of an issue of Development in Practice that is really worth digging out (in the interests of transparency, I should point out that Oxfam funds the journal). This fascinating, witty and slightly tongue-in-cheek essay captures a few of the qualities of a good buzzword:

· It should be fuzzy (hence the use of ‘fuzzword’), allowing lots of people to read different meanings into the same term
· ‘Consensual hurrah words’ are good – you can’t really disagree with ‘transparency’, ‘participation’, or ‘empowerment’
· Using code words that are largely unintelligible to most people, such as ‘social capital’ or ‘gender mainstreaming’ are handy because they mark you out as an insider/club member

Interestingly, Professor Cornwall notes that many buzzwords in the anglo-dominated development marketplace are virtually untranslatable in many languages (‘accountability’, ‘governance’, ‘partnership’, ‘country ownership’ – even ‘buzzword’!)

Are all these words meaningless? Far from it. Academics often get frustrated and demand precise definitions of ‘civil society’ or ‘effective states’, but in a way they are missing the point: buzzwords shape the discussion (the ‘discourse’ in the jargon), acting as a kind of envelope within which some ideas flourish and others simply wither away. At the end of her article Cornwall proposes some more edgy buzzwords, like ‘justice’, ‘solidarity’, ‘redistribution’, or – most radical of all – ‘pleasure’. Imagine a Millennium Development Goal aimed at maximising the pleasure of the least happy billion on the planet – now that would be radical! So if you ever read about the IMF and World Bank scrapping their funding for Poverty Reduction Strategies in favour of Pleasure Maximisation Strategies, you have Professor Cornwall to thank (although I’ll doubtless try and take the credit…..)


December 1, 2008
Duncan Green