Jargon and the death of charity

“What tends to happen is your syntax collapses… All of a sudden, you are mumbling. It often works. I created a new language which we now call Fedspeak. Unless you are expert at it, you can’t tell that I didn’t say anything.”

– Alan Greenspan (Chairman of the Federal Reserve 1987-2006).

Marketing language has infiltrated just about every aspect of our lives. In the aid sphere, if we don’t learn it we cannot get grants. This page is about how and why it is harmful (in the context of the personal relationships DS aims to facilitate), and why we don’t use it.

Like others in the NGO world, I started out thinking I could just fill out grant applications and get things done. After a couple of courses and some ‘inspirational’ videos, I believed I could just learn the technique of sounding authoritative without actually saying anything coherent, and just use it to get the grants. There’s no shortage of ‘help’ available for this!

At first, I genuinely believed that the grant application process, with all its intricacies and complexities, was designed to ensure that applicants were not frauds or not too plain stupid to be able to carry out what they were proposing. It was only through following the steps that the real purpose was revealed to me.

A Lesson From Leonard

As I progressed in setting up a regular non-profit I started to notice that the people I was interacting with were not just using jargon to get grants, they were using it in social settings as well. To coin a phrase, they were believing their own bullshit. I suppose that’s an essential part of it all.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
― George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

The grants available for ‘development’ projects are large and attractive. I was being advised by a professional early on, and when we were trying to come up with a budget we got to the staff salaries part. I said how much money I needed to live on, which was what I was getting at the time, about 12,000 euros a year (yeah, it was a while back). Oh no, she said. If you put that down as your salary they won’t take you seriously. Put down 45,000!

As I came to understand what would be required for the organisation to qualify for funding from the UN and their lackeys, I decided that 45,000 a year was nowhere near enough. In fact, no amount of money could compensate for having all the fun replaced by the routine conformity demanded.

The terms and conditions of the grants and the change in thinking required to actually qualify for them would change the very nature of what I was trying to do and impose things on the communities which I had no right to do. It would change me as well, no matter how ‘clever’ I thought I could be about it. To believe otherwise would require me to consider myself better than the people I was meeting in the NGO world.

As Leonard Cohen sang: They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom, for trying to change the system from within. The wise heed the warnings of those who have gone before.

Here’s SCIgen, a jargon generator for computer scientists which has been used to submit papers successfully to conferences, and not just the bogus conferences they mention in their site, real conference organizers actually accepted computer-generated jargon as bona-fide scientific research.

Even more so in the NGO world, the truth is that the hand-written grant applications contain no more real meaning than the computer-generated ones. The only difference is in the perception of the reader, statistically they are the same. A good grant writer makes it sound less like nonsense than a computer can, yet.

It’s already happening in the field of journalism, or what passes for journalism. See for example this Wired article about Narrative Science — a company that trains computers to write news stories. I think our mainstream media may already be full of such stuff! This Sputnik article may well be an example. Notice how the article looks great but merely repeats the headline 4 times and follows it with a couple of cut-and-paste bits from other related articles which give no more info about the subject indicated by the headline.

And here is a New Age Bullshit Generator that’s so well written it’s indistinguishable from the real thing. And Grantspeak is a jargon generator specifically for grant applications.

Here’s something from The Economist:

The jargon of aid: Anyone here speak NGOish?

The emerging new country of South Sudan, which has voted overwhelmingly for secession from the north, has already become a leading nation of “the workshop”: not a place where hard work gets done under duress but where the language of aid is taking hold even among the natives. “I feel like a stakeholder now,” exclaimed a woman of the Dinka tribe, the region’s most prolific.

All the favourite words of NGO-speak are now aired in the makeshift corridors and canteens of Juba, the fledgling capital. Top of the list are “empowerment”, “capacity-building” and “stakeholder” (not someone actually carrying a stake). “Governance”, “civil society”, “facilitators” and “disadvantaged” follow fast behind. British NGOs have a fondness for “focal groups”. Americans like anything that leads to “inclusion”, especially of the “excluded”.

Such terms’ joy is that they are nice and woolly, hard to define and harder still to contradict: who could possibly turn down the chance to enhance development practitioners’ facilitation skills for the capacity-building of gender-disadvantaged women?

NGO-speak is particularly cherished and fostered in the grant applications that smaller NGOs have to file to the bigger ones. Using the right word is all. “If you don’t know the buzz words,” says an NGO director, “you hardly have a chance to apply for funds.”

If this development machine can take the incredible diversity of indigenous people all over the world and spit out identical politically-correct drones spouting the same wooly language from the highlands of Papua to the cloud forests of Peru, what might it do to me? What’s it doing to humanity—to the world?

The Oxford-based Nuffield Review (Jargon in Schools), the most comprehensive study of secondary education in 50 years, said that ‘the words we use shape our thinking’.

Our thinking shapes our actions, and our actions shape our world. Now I understand the real purpose of all this “training”.

How Jargon Works

Recent research by Todd Rogers, assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, sheds light on the circumstances and techniques that allow politicians to wriggle away from difficult subject matter.

After prerecording a speaker answering a question about universal healthcare, researchers attached the same answer to three separate questions—the original one about healthcare, another about illegal drug use, and a final one about the war on terror. Then they showed the three tapes to separate groups of subjects and asked them to assess the truthfulness of the speaker.

Their results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that “artful dodging” depends on subtlety. When the speaker gave a response about healthcare to a question about illegal drug use—which sounds similar but is in fact quite unrelated—his audience found him just as trustworthy as did the group who heard him answer a question about universal healthcare. (In fact, when quizzed afterward, almost none of the subjects in the drug-use scenario could remember exactly what question had been asked.) Only when the speaker responded to a question about the war on terror with an answer on healthcare did the subjects notice the dodge.

Rogers believes there are two reasons for this inability to detect subtle evasions. The first, he says, is that humans simply have a limited attention span. Poor attention is universal to all “humans and all animals that we manage to study,” he says. “Though we don’t realize it, we go through our lives detecting just the gist of what’s going on. Even if we wanted to pay careful attention to each answer, we would have a limited capacity” to do so.

A second, related reason is that paying attention to a speaker involves taking in an overwhelming amount of information. When watching a presidential debate, for example, viewers are considering not only the questions and answers but also the speakers’ body language, facial expressions, and overall likability. This adds yet another level of cognitive challenge, making it more difficult to remember whether a given answer is a specific response to the question asked.

Rogers does think there are ways to minimize “artful dodging” in political discourse. Television producers and documentary filmmakers, for example, can actively remind audiences of what was asked by displaying the text of questions right on the screen while the candidate answers. In one study, he reports, “We posted the text of the question on the screen, and everybody detected what was going on”—even in the case of subtle dodge.


“To achieve adjustment and sanity and the conditions that follow from them, we must study the structural characteristics of this world first and, then only, build languages of similar structure, instead of habitually ascribing to the world the primitive structure of our language.”
-Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity.

A Solution

It’s a good idea to be aware of our own weaknesses and to design our systems to minimise the effect of them. If, for reasons of our biology or our psychology, we are limited in our ability to discern when someone is using jargon to mislead us in some way, then it makes sense to avoid creating opportunities for such things to occur.

The fewer people we involve in a process, the less chance there is of deception and corruption. Where do all the grant givers get their money? Ultimately it comes from us. Where does tax money come from? Or corporate funding? Where do corporations get their money? It all comes ultimately from us. Their job is to distribute it in a way that fulfills our desire to make the world a better place. Our desire, not theirs!

It’s not rocket science, but the people ‘in charge’ would like us to think it is, to justify the rocket scientist salaries they take from our contributions. They use jargon and clever techniques to make themselves appear essential to the process. It’s time to remove them from the equation, and directly sponsor the people we want to help. Now, with the internet, which is ours because it’s paid for by us, we can! If something we want doesn’t exist yet, then we have to build it ourselves.

Instead of reassuring words from professionals, we want the full accounts presented live, in such a way that we can see both an overview and be able to dig down to each individual item. Instead of second-hand views written by organization staff, we want to see the videos and blog posts of our own recipients. We want to communicate directly with the people we are helping so that we can learn from each other and continually improve.

Any system is built primarily to suit the purposes of those who built it, and any use we might find for it is a secondary purpose at best. The aid business has built a massively complex system whose ostensible purpose is to channel aid to those who need it, but it works badly for us and for our recipients because the needs of the aid business itself are at the forefront. We don’t have to use it. We can build our own system and design it to suit us.

This won’t put any good and useful aid workers out of a job, it will just change their employer.


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