The implications of language are a daily challenge in our work at the ISEDT and with the Disasters Group at Catalyst 2030. It seems to apply especially to conversations in sustainability, aid and development.
The opportunities for misunderstanding and misinterpretation from what is said and written are legion. Even the more aware communicators can be caught out by how people internalise what has been said or written. It is unsafe to work on the basis that ‘you should understand what I meant’.
The challenge of communicating both to inform and to have a discussion is typified by the maxim that ‘the main problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place’. That challenge exists in monocultures but is amplified many times when one is attempting to try and establish mutual understanding across different languages, cultures: rich to poor, highly educated to basic literacy, powerful to in need.
Mahatma Gandhi reflected both the challenge of language and the lack of symmetry in relationships and communications when asked what he thought of western civilisation? He famously replied that he “thought it would be a good idea”!
The thrust of our work at ISEDT is to promote the local autonomy and hence the dignity of people living in less developed parts of the world. The fundamental idea is that self-determination is empowering and energising and that people working in international aid and development have no right to make choices on behalf of those whose experiences they cannot fully appreciate. That is not to argue that help should be withdrawn; on the contrary, it should be offered in abundance but on the terms of the people who need the help.
This is not a unique idea; it is embodied in the widely disseminated idea of ‘Localisation’ and the debate that is raging about the urgent need to de-colonise aid. The ODI has produced a report running to 250+ pages on ‘Localisation’; such depth of analysis is worthy but clouds the concept and the reality of achieving change. The ideas of localising and de-colonising carry a whole range of possibilities for interpretation and action. The #ShiftthePower movement is a strong advocate of radical change. A milder approach is about moving organisations to local organisational platforms but maintaining ‘soft influence and control’.
The essence of this policy debate and its practical and organisational implications is about levels of ‘trust’ – another big word for the sector.
None of the debate on terminology and its interpretation and implications has the slightest impact on people in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia who make up 85% plus of the world’s profoundly poor. At the risk of causing offence, esoteric discussions around the words are a complete irrelevance to the people in these places where their survival is challenged daily. The words are a convenient way not to get involved in their hardship while virtue signalling that you are on the side of these people, whoever they are.
Two further words in this space that carry an extreme range of connotations are ‘equality’ and ‘dignity’. 80% of global wealth is concentrated in 20% of global population and that 80:20 rule is broadly apparent in almost all statistical distributions. The order of things is fundamentally asymmetrical, so advocating equality is a vision rather than a practical pathway. Don’t get me wrong, this is not arguing against equality, just that we have to make change starting from the current imbalance.
The word ‘dignity’ and the ideas behind it brings a different and more optimistic perspective. It feeds back into a more practical approach to localisation and is an altogether better starting point. Treating people with dignity means listening to their voices and respecting their personal choices. When you do that, you give hope and with hope people can achieve amazing things.
So, the challenge is learning to communicate in a way that is open, seeks clarification and consent, and respects points of view and choices. In simple terms you confer dignity just by the way people are addressed. Those conversations will still not be symmetrical as the underlying power dynamics and inequity of wealth and resources will be unchanged. Respecting opinions and enabling choice while suspending ideology is the skill that is needed.
With the right language and lots of listening, the conversations can be empowering and enable people to dare to hope.