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Oxfam Publication Inspired by UNRISD Conference

5 Jan 2011



A new Oxfam publication has a direct link to UNRISD. Published in November 2010, Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords, came out of the 2004 UNRISD conference, "Social Knowledge and International Policy Making". In the preface, editor Deborah Eade writes that a presentation, “Taking on Board New Concepts and Buzzwords”, given by fellow editor Andrea Cornwall, provided inspiration for the 320-page book.

The 2004 issue of UNRISD Conference News reporting on the event says, “Terms such as ‘poverty reduction’, ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ are a universal feature in development policy and project documents emanating from the United Nations, the World Bank, bilateral agencies, NGOs and grassroots organizations. Clearly, the worldviews inspiring these institutions are diverse, and sometimes divergent, hence the adoption of qualifiers such as 'people-centred', ‘pro-poor’ or ‘rights-based’ in order to stake out the differences. The contribution by Andrea Cornwall and Karen Brock examined the ways in which these benign-sounding terms have entered mainstream development policy discourse, and in so doing become ‘buzzwords’, acquiring new connotations or having been emptied of any useful meaning.”

Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords is a compilation of 29 essays, all of which explore terms common to development. In the preface, Eade writes, “The extraordinary thing about Developmentspeak is that it is simultaneously descriptive and normative, concrete and yet aspirational, intuitive and clunkily pedestrian, capable of expressing the most deeply held convictions or of being simply ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. This very elasticity makes it almost the ideal post-modern medium, even as it embodies a modernizing agenda.”

In the book’s first chapter, Cornwall says, “For those involved in development practice, reflection on words and their meanings may seem irrelevant to the real business of getting things done. Why, after all, should language matter to those who are doing development? . . . But language does matter for development. Development’s buzzwords are not only passwords to funding and influence; and they are more than the mere specialist jargon that is characteristic of any profession. The word development itself, Gilbert Rist observes, has become a ‘modern shibboleth, an unavoidable password’, which comes to be used ‘to convey the idea that tomorrow things will be better, or that more is necessarily better’. But, as he goes on to note, the very taken-for-granted quality of ‘development’ – and the same might be said of many of the words that are used in development discourse – leaves much of what is actually done in its name unquestioned.”

Former UNRISD Director Thandika Mkandawire, Chair of the Department of African Studies at LSE, is among the book’s contributors. His essay is entitled, “Good Governance: The Itinerary of an Idea.”