Lost in jargon

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

In our era of neo-liberalism, the development sector has been reduced to a factory that churns out jargon which can only be understood by ‘highly qualified technical experts’. There is no public consumption of technical jargon, but they certainly have a power dimension for development elites who relish the perception of having command over the specialised language.

These technical experts act as the only source of all organisational wisdom and break down the universal narrative of ‘change’ into an obscure language of cyclical logic – often called ‘an iterative process of learning’ where jargon is repeated ad nauseam to neutralise the possibility of integrated thinking.

Most organisations have now become a space for disengaged and isolated individuals who are easy prey for control and subordination mostly because of the dominance of the cyclical logic of jargon on development discourse.

As a result, these organisations become vertical structures of domination and subordination. Those who claim to work for the development of the poor usually end up becoming the victims of the poverty of organisational language and imagination. Dedicated but alienated development workers find themselves lost in the labyrinth of a sophisticated and unfathomable world of development discourse of the technical elite and lose the hope of building a better world for the poor.

This unabated production of ambiguous jargon creates a protected constituency for some technical experts who claim that they have the skill to easily interpret the development discourse. This ‘skill’ stems from the systemic need to discredit the transformative potential of the human force in organisations. This potential gets lost in the job description of a submissive and alienated worker of development masters. Bosses in the development sector get heavily paid to manage workers in an unaccountable vertical system of control and domination. Workers who dare to become whistleblowers against this inhumane system usually find themselves in a pool of redundancy and lose their jobs.

Volatility, uncertainty, instability, ambiguity and unpredictability are just some of the jargon used in organisational management. Development seniors would happily promote such jargon as their strategic tools to lay off workers with transformative potential. These development heads find it hard to be accountable for their unquestionable conduct of exercising absolute power and discretion in the name of constant organisational restructuring.

A modern development organisation has two operational flanks of knowledge production: programme development function and quality assurance which is the function to monitor, evaluate and make the programme accountable to the people an organisation claims to serve. A development programme must ideally be designed to address the multiple challenges of poverty, and hence it has to be grounded in a local context.

But in reality, these programmes are normally designed in an ecosystem which is highly tilted to the strategic interests of international donors. The language of a programme gets immersed in a top-down discourse to reflect the strategic interests of a donor rather than being informed by multi-dimensional and contextual poverty. Every donor wants aid recipients to use its language to win the funding and to employ pliant technical professionals, not critical thinkers.

There is no denying that donors would like to be seen as providers of development assistance rather than being critiqued for providing it. But this very relationship of a provider and a recipient between a donor and a development organisation sets the course of an asymmetrical relationship in the development world.

Development organisations then employ those professionals who know the tricks of how to please the donor and can pre-empt a potential backlash of this power asymmetry. In a neoliberal order, these development organisations work like local capitalists which can allow the free flow of ideas without much engagement, imagination and critique.

Neo-colonial development discourses and practices are grounded in the topsy-turvy world of subjugation and enslavement of post-colonial development workers. They hate the critical perspectives and transformational potential of the poor. It is, therefore, important to assert that development needs delocalisation in the first place to realise its transformational potential. The goal of the decolonisation of development cannot be achieved without the political and economic decolonisation of the Global South.

Until that decolonisation happens, development workers must focus on alternate and organic development initiatives instead of relying on hefty foreign aid for development. This aid is a sort of bribe for a subscription to the neoliberal order. Indeed, it is a costly bargain for a genuine development worker whose dreams of contributing to poverty alleviation get shattered due to economic compulsions.

Historically, poverty was never eliminated through foreign aid or development assistance. Only those nations which could force their governments to invest in the social protection and economic security of the poor were able to come out of the quagmire of poverty. Inclusive development and poverty alleviation cannot happen without political will, strong democratic institutions and a universal welfare state to regulate the economic production for social needs.

For those of us who cannot wait for a political movement in the Global South to attain political, economic and developmental sovereignty, let us pledge to introduce some structural reforms in our existing organisations. Organisational learning and accountability must be linked to the contextual variables of poverty and not be framed in an exotic logframe. Organisations must be flexible to engage the primary actors – local communities – in framing the theory of change rather than relying on the policy blueprints of a distant technical expert.

Those who are employed by a top-down organisation with elitist idiosyncrasies may end up losing their jobs if they have alternate ideas of development. It is, therefore, advisable for them not to rock the boat and get unemployed – until a crisis hits the organisation and one can find some space for alternate ideas. In the meantime, such employees can always invest time in reaching out to the proponents of alternate thinking in the development sector.

Top-down organisations are bound to face multiple crises not because of the external challenges but mostly due to the power wrangling between the elites within an organisation. This happens because of elite subjectivity and discretionary powers which give birth to conflicts for establishing the legitimacy of competing validity claims of management.

Elite management is generally more focused on resource centralisation, complete control, and privilege bargain for self-aggrandisement and personal gains. When top-down organisations are hit by an irreconcilable crisis and irreversible damage due to the power wrangling of the elite, new ideas find their audience. If there is a network of alternate thinkers, this space can be reclaimed to build a better world for the poor.

He tweets @AmirHussain76

Email: [email protected]

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