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Back | Programme Area: Overarching Concerns

Beyond Buzzwords: “Poverty Reduction”, “Participation” and “Empowerment” in Development Policy



In the fast-moving world of development policy, buzzwords play an important part in framing solutions. Today’s development orthodoxies are captured in a seductive mix of such words, among which “poverty reduction”, “participation” and “empowerment” take a prominent place. These words give today’s development policies a sense of purposefulness and optimism. They suggest a governable, controllable world where everyone gets a chance to take part in making the decisions that affect their lives, where policies neatly map out a route for implementation. But what difference do these words make? Has their use led to any meaningful change in the policies pursued by mainstream development?

This paper takes a critical look at how these three terms have come to be used in international development policy, exploring how different configurations of words frame and justify particular kinds of development interventions. It begins by investigating the form and function of development buzzwords in the statements of intent of development agencies, exploring their performative effects as well as their semantic qualities. Second, it discusses how these buzzwords have changed over time, and analyses their use in the context of two contemporary development policy instruments, the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Finally, the discussion broadens to reflect on the place of such terms in development policy more generally.

The argument put forward in this paper is that the terms we use are never neutral. They come to be given meaning as they are put to use in policies. And these policies, in turn, influence how those who work in development come to think about what they are doing. The way words come to be combined allows certain meanings to flourish, and others to become barely possible to think with. We show how words that once spoke of politics and power have come to be reconfigured in the service of today’s one-size-fits-all development recipes, spun into an apoliticized form that everyone can agree with. As such, we contend, their use in development policy may offer little hope of the world free of poverty that they are used to evoke.

Andrea Cornwall is a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, United Kingdom. Karen Brock, an independent development consultant, was previously a researcher with the Participation Group at the Institute of Development Studies.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Dec 2005
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-816X
    From: UNRISD