In the new year, we’re shifting our attention to the words we use and their power to underpin dangerous power dynamics in the industry.
Words are what give form to our ideas. They have the power to shape our realities. And, whether intentional or not, the words we choose can influence the power dynamics of groups and communities. At ACDI/VOCA, our mission is to help people achieve better lives through economic prosperity and social inclusion. So, if we believe in social inclusion, then how we communicate about those who are excluded matters.
As communications experts, we’re always looking for ways to tell genuine stories about the communities we serve, but it isn’t always easy, especially when those communities are remote or marginalized. Add to this the many industry terms linked to neocolonial, patriarchal, or Western biases, and the misgivings about how to tell those stories grow.
However, in the same way that our technical experts around the world use social and behavior change communication to promote the inclusion of women or youth, we’re also turning to communication, in the form of inclusive language. What do we mean by inclusive language?
Inclusive language does not reinforce biases that discriminate against people based on their race, gender, disability, immigration status, or other factors. It also doesn’t set a dominant group as the “norm” and a minority group as the “other.”
In A Progressive’s Style Guide, published by the global nonprofit Sum of Us, inclusive language follows these central principles:
- People-first language places people before their descriptors, e.g., “people with disabilities” not “disabled people.”
- Active voice empowers the subject of a sentence by having them perform the action, e.g., “the farmer sold their produce,” not “the produce was sold by the farmer.”
- Self-identification respects how individuals choose to speak about themselves, e.g., “non-binary” not “gender bending.”
- Proper nouns name specific people or places without diluting or make broad associations, e.g., “Wayuu” not “indigenous people.”
Even though ACDI/VOCA has worked in more than 150 countries since 1963, the way we talk about our work is always evolving, as are our editorial standards. Below are some of the changes we’ve made in recent years and why we made the shift.
A “beneficiary” is someone who receives help, often through charity in the case of nonprofits and NGOs. For ACDI/VOCA, the term “beneficiary” does not often apply to our work. Rather than distributing traditional aid, such as food rations or supplies, we collaborate with local governments and public and private partners on long-term goals over several years. This model ensures that all efforts are owned by those at the center, and ACDI/VOCA is there to facilitate.
“Beneficiary” also implies that we have determined who is in need, what type of relief they need, and how they will receive it, none of which are the case. Global development is a two-way street, in which those we serve and partner with contribute to the outcomes. In recent years, we’ve used the terms “participant,” “partner,” or named a group specifically. These alternatives allow more space for humanized descriptions of our participants and why they engage with us.
In the Field
“In the field” is a quick, turn of phrase for distinguishing between our home office in Washington, D.C., and the many offices of programs we implement around the world. The problem with this phrase is its drawing of unnecessary lines between “us” and “them.”
We understand that fieldwork still takes place. But the term “in the field” has fallen out of favor as global development has moved away from the perception that U.S-based staff “parachute in” to support other countries. The scenario of home office staff working “in the field” risks creating a false sense of those individuals being somehow more capable than the more than 1,000 country office staff ACDI/VOCA employs globally.
It also discounts our programs taking place in dense cities that do not fit the stereotypes of traditional foreign aid. Many development programs have moved in this direction. After all, urban populations are steadily growing, with 55 percent of all people living in urban areas, according to the World Bank.
Instead of “in the field,” we aim to name the specific location of the office or use terms such as “country operations,” “country programs,” or “country offices.”
The more precise language is, the better. In the same way that we avoid making sweeping statements about “target” or “at risk” populations (at risk of what?), we also favor being as specific as possible in describing socioeconomic levels. For example, instead of referring to “poor communities of Urabá,” we may refer to “communities of Urabá, a low-income region of Colombia grappling with the effects of decades-long armed conflict.”
This wording allows us to communicate about people in poor places without stigmatizing the people themselves. Calling people or communities “poor” is at best overgeneralizing and at worst implying an intrinsic quality. But poverty is most often circumstantial, which is why this wording also attempts to illuminate why the region is low-income to begin with.
What Changes Have You Made?
While we have more work to do as communicators, we’re starting the new year with inclusive language front of mind. Are you a global development professional whose language has evolved over time? What roadblocks made it hard to shed outdated industry jargon? What suggestions do you have for us? We invite you to leave your comments below.Comments