Posts Tagged ‘euphemistic language’

Specificity killed the cat

The Climate & Development Knowledge Network innovation fund has opened to a second round of applications (with an African focus). In order to apply you need to meet the following criteria:

  • Are an applicant group that includes at least two (2) partners; Lead Applicants must be African (and not international institutions based in Africa), with additional partners also being African.
  • Are an applicant group which includes government institutions; if not, you must demonstrate significant government buy-in.
  • Are proposing activities that support an existing network/community of practice to ensure buy-in and sustainability.
  • Have game-changing project ideas/concepts focused on Africa that require development and shaping through an innovation process; provide a forum in which active (cross-sector and cross-regional) engagement, consultation and collaboration can directly take place and catalyse the direction, design and structure of a future project or initiative.
  • Are aligned with the evaluation criteria.
  • Can set up a sustainable uptake pathway for the results of the innovation process, for which a relevant target audience is clearly articulated.

I have two observations. Firstly, this is jargon overkill à la EU for what I imagine should be a wide-ranging call for proposals accessible to as many people as possible. What is an “innovation process” when it’s at home? Opaque language like this tends to restrict applications to the usual suspects who can navigate the linguistic contortions, the very opposite of what innovation is supposed to be about.

Secondly, these are very specific criteria. Why does it have to be 2+ partners, 100% African? Why demand government buy-in when civil society can be a more powerful agent of change? Why should applicants be working through a network and have to provide a forum for engagement etc? The problem with very specific funding criteria is that you encourage applicants to dream up projects specifically to meet your preconceived notions rather than to meet their own priorities.

This gets a thumbs down from me.

The use of euphemism and excuses for failure

In amidst all the usual jargon, international development includes some truly excellent / excruciating euphemisms. ‘Rent seeking behaviour’ aka corruption (or gangsterism, bullying, cheating and stealing) has to be my favourite, whilst ‘Development Partner’ aka donor (he who pays the piper, not exactly an equal partner) is one of the most ridiculous. This reluctance to call a spade a spade is very understandable in the context of international diplomacy – indeed we could probably not do without it – but is less helpful in a results-focused business which is what the aid industry these days claims it is.

Although the two examples above do not particularly relate to project performance, much of this euphemistic language arises in attempts by donors and implementing agencies to explain the failure of their last development project. The preference is always to find some technical or at least technically sounding (hence the need for euphemism) excuse as to why a certain project failed. Although Ben Ramalingan was talking much more generally than about the failure of a single project when he criticised the Results-Based Management framework that I discussed in my previous post, the wrong management framework is another good candidate. Anything is better than criticising the recipient country managers; just because they may be incapable of organising a booze-up in a brewery it isn’t their fault. If anything they just need their capacity building …

So we build their capacity. We send them on a few training courses. Yeah! Now they know how to use a logframe everything will go swimmingly … Rarely does the aid industry really attempt to get to grips with the real capacity constraints; poor management culture and incentives in the civil service. (I’m sure there are more.) Donors know reforming the civil service is hard enough in their own countries, and World Bank supported efforts in developing countries grind along at a snail’s pace achieving only peripheral successes, e.g. performance appraisals without performance related pay or promotion.

I think this partly explains the constant search for new ideas and potential silver bullets in development, even though we actually have quite good ideas already of quite a lot of things that work … when managed properly. When the great new hope comes along – e.g. REDD in conservation – the taps open once again, and all the same mistakes are made over again. “This time it’ll be different”, donors – sorry, development partners! – tell themselves, because, well, hope springs eternal.

This is not a call to end development aid; not all aid projects fail and far from all developing country managers are incompetent. But I do think the industry is going to have to get more honest with itself. We need to set more modest targets for aid projects and stop using implementation channels that are known not to work. Then we need to fess up when things don’t work, and end the self-delusion as to why they didn’t work. International diplomacy can work with appropriate technology human-wielded latrine construction tools, but successful development just needs a few spades.

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