Using the right word: The case for positive wording in development

A negative wording seems to be increasingly used in narratives on individuals and human societies as well as economic, social and cultural development.

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      Words such as undocumentedjoblesshomelessilliterateinformal sector and non-governmental organisations are part of daily professional and private language. In certain cases, their use as acronyms (for example, SDF standing for “homeless” in French) tends to normalise/mainstream them, but their semantic weight remains as heavy.

      Other words such as traditional (as opposed to modern) or customary law (as opposed to positive law) are even more insidious.

      These words are part of a routine that has been sometimes unconsciously adopted or at the very least to which very little thought has been given. They downgrade the individuals and the social groups they target. Furthermore, they are not very effective and sometimes counter-productive for development purposes.

      Indeed, development agencies expect social sciences to explain their policy failures, often attributed to social constraints. They do not seek to identify positive phenomena that could be used as a basis for interventions in a given society.

      For instance, school curricula of all kinds are based on written knowledge and written material neglecting exceptionally powerful memory skills developed in oral tradition societies through memory exercises and games since childhood.

      Damien Helly and Greta Galeazzi, quoted by Melissa Julian in the Weekly Compass from 11 September 2015, call for more cultural sensitivity in development actions. This is a good opportunity to agree with them and to draw attention to the issue of negative wording and its related implicit semantic meaning.

      How and why should we try to reverse the trend of negative wording?

      First of all, the trend should be reversed to respect the individuals and societies who are the targets of development work.

      Second, to work more efficiently. Wealthy countries have the highest level of collective and individual material goods – sometimes too high – so they tend to see other material cultures and their people that have less as “have nots,” suffering from “gaps” (while wealthy societies promote a variety of consumer goods).

      This logic seems very obvious at first glance. However, its implementation is usually done so quickly and hastily that it may hide and miss the identification of older or emerging drivers that could actually be more efficient supporting.

      I will give two examples in two different sectors in which I personally intervened: livestock and education/schooling (the word literacy underlooks the idea of education and I’d rather not use it). In both sectors, national authorities and external actors usually have the same approach.

      1) In the 1970s and 1980s, internationally funded livestock development projects in the central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger) looked for solutions to the droughts in the Sahel. They discovered the local traditions of cattle-lending among cattle breeders very late and when they decided to support them, they did so only to a limited extent. Everyone in the region knew these traditions. Instead of declaring breeders bankrupt, it would have been much better to listen to them and support, by nurturing it, the so-called system of “bounded cows,” which consists in lending a cow to a relative, a neighbour, a friend, until it grows three calves and goes back to its original herd.

      2) Fulani women in the Central African Republic teach reading and writing (called Ajami, in Arabic signs) to their children in small family schools. An internationally funded development project was foreseen to support literacy in the country in the 1980s. Only male teachers – and no female – were expected to be involved. Instead of declaring that the population was illiterate, donors should have designed their intervention on the basis of mere observation: education was actually taking place in private houses’ courtyards and indoors. I was then in charge of designing an education programme in phonetic Fulani. Authorities rejected my request to hire and train female teachers on the ground that it was impossible and even useless. I lost three years. Three years later, I managed to organise train-the-trainers sessions that later proved effective. At an inter-ministerial meeting, I was even called “the man of the situation”!

      Similar investigations to the ones I carried out on Fulani teaching women or cattle-lending take stock of what is currently operational. They take time. They require genuine fieldwork. They also require critical awareness when faced with simplistic reasoning based on “gaps” and “problems.” The good news is that they require very little equipment and are therefore very affordable.

      In spite of their cost-efficiency, ill-informed knowledge receives more favour than such approaches, because of the perpetuation of automatic thinking along the same old lines, resulting in a huge waste in poor contexts.

      We must reverse this trend: I suggest starting by revisiting development strategies and concepts and by promoting positive wording, at last. It would be far more than branding: it is a different way of thinking of others, of what is elsewhere and of what is done differently.

      (Editing and translation by Damien Helly)


      Danièle Kintz is an anthropologist and linguist and founding member of LESC, Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative, Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, France. An expert in anthropology and ethnolinguistics, she’s specialised in the Sahel, in particular, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Central African Republic, Chad and to a lesser extent Ethiopia and Nigeria. Her main topics of work are the Fulani people, rural land systems, rural economy, focus on gold panning in the last 20 years. She is the author of more than 100 publications and reports.

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