Beware the Buzzword

They exist in almost every industry. Words that are used to describe something of importance to everyone within a specific industry or group but mean something different to anyone outside of that group or words that have adopted strong meaning to all who hear them across groups and situations. I like to call these words buzzwords and they are especially pervasive in development.

These words like gender equality, maternal health, HIV/AIDS pull on heart strings, open wallets and generally evoke reactions in those who hear them – but like all buzzwords, the reactions they evoke may not represent the true meaning of the word or program they are describing.

This is not a critique but instead a commentary on an interesting phenomenon in development. Engineers Without Borders, like all organizations, has buzzwords which help us to communicate: impact, capacity building, rockstar. We are of course not describing the force of one body colliding with another, the ability to receive fluid or Jim Morrison, but instead conveying an idea in a way which resonates within our organization.

So when should you be on your guard about buzzwords?

I am going to suggest that anytime a buzzword is used to describe an entire program, i.e. “we work on gender inequality”, be on your guard. Here is a little anecdote to explain why.

I was working in the field recently with a gentleman from World Vision, he was proudly outlining their programs in the area and mentioned that they work on “girls’ literacy.” Interested, I asked him more about the program.

Well, he said, we distribute palala (porridge) to schools for children to eat in the morning.

So, I asked him, you only feed the girls?

No, he replied, we feed all the students.

Okay, I continued, how does that improve girls’ literacy?

He proceeded to tell me about how ensuring that students eat in the morning leads to higher concentration, etc. I agree, a full breakfast is extremely important – to childhood development, concentration, nutrition, health- but I am not convinced that this program actually targets girls’ literacy.

I think instead, this program is an important program that uses the buzzwords ‘girls’ literacy’ because they evoke a stronger response than ‘children’s breakfast program’ or some equivalent.

Is this entirely bad, no. However, masking the true components of a program or project leads to a decrease in transparency and accountability and can lead to ‘buzzword smearing’ as I will aptly name the phenomenon of working on everything (think of the organizations that work on climate change, gender inequality, early childhood development, HIV/AIDS, and the list goes on. Can one organization really do all that well?)

And so, my little word to the wise for today is beware the buzzword. When you read about a program pay attention to how you feel; are you drawn in by words that evoke strong feelings or by the compelling nature of the work?


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brett on July 16, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Great post Lauren! I can definitely see how buzzwords that inaccurately represent development projects could hinder support for the project. Getting people’s attention with exciting words is good, but if they don’t accurately describe what your doing that’s really just faulty advertising.

    P.S. Nice Jim Morrison reference ; )


  2. Posted by Tom Hansen on July 16, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Good stuff. I hope everything is going well.
    I agree with the article. Kinda seems like the significance of buzz words and their causes well be diluted if they are over used. Again I find this similar to a past post where you talked about building a new well rather than repairing an old well. It makes you wonder: How much do organizations manipulate their projects or their marketing of projects to obtain donations/public support.


  3. Posted by Mike K on July 17, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Hey Lauren,

    I like your point about buzzword smearing – it’s getting me thinking about (1) what’s the driver/cause for this? Is it driven by development trends in funding, or for simplicity in donor explanation? What are those upstream reasons for it? (2) I’m interested to hear that the project officer or field worker is so excited/motivated by the term – I wonder if he was genuinely instrinsically motivated to see his work contributing (in theory) to that kind of change, or if he had programmed himself to speak the way his managers wanted?

    Your other point about development organizations who “work on everything” is one that I thought about a ton when I was in Zambia last year. The flipside to the argument you presented is “what if you are focused on only one thing (water and sanitation) and the community really wants to receive support on vegetable farming?” It was a really tough dilemma that I saw in the field on many different occasions where community members would ask for one thing, but all we were offering was in relation to sanitation. I guess the best case is some kind of hybrid, where org’s are specialized based on what they’re good at, but they are still open-minded in realizing how their sector/focus area relates to other areas of development. If everything is siloed, and one district has amazing water-point-coverage but terrible sanitation behaviours, and the next district has the opposite, are we really accomplishing anything?

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!



  4. Posted by Alex on July 18, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    This makes me think automatically about how the word “green” is overused to the point that we assume anything with a green label must be environmentally friendly. This is definitely not the case but it is a clever marketing scheme. I think the “buzzwords” you describe act in the same way. Rather than explain what a project really is it is much easier to use a buzzword to do the explaining for you. I am totally guilty of this, when people ask me what EWB is I usually say something along the lines of “we are trying to eliminate poverty”. This is true in a sense, but it says nothing about what we actually do. I’ll have to be more careful now to try an eliminate these words from my vocab.


  5. Posted by David McColl on July 27, 2010 at 6:19 am

    Yeah, I agree with Alex, describing EWB’s work without using buzzwords is tough… I could use a lot of improvement. I also agree with Mike, I think we need expertise with an open-mind.

    I have to admit I’ve been doing business related advertising this summer, and I do my best to catch people’s eye and somehow reflect the reality of the situation. It’s a tough thing… because both are needed to be successful in anything that needs funding. But I do think donors appreciate minimizing the use of buzzwords!

    I have to say I have fallen for buzzwords and find myself supporting organizations who are not ideal for me but have ideal advertising/messaging… and then I realize what I should be supporting, and these people have not been using the buzzwords/messaging all along. In the end, it’s the substance that matters.


  6. Posted by Lesley on July 27, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Lauren – I always enjoy reading your posts but this one especially caught my attention. We all use buzz words in all that we do and your comments have made me realize that we do really need to think before we use the inevitable buzz words. And yes, substance is everything!


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