Thursday, 25 November 2010

Simple Words about Complexity

In a helpful comment about my recent post "Donor Playgrounds and Unknowable Outcomes", my friend Hélène complains about jargon. Why do we use fancy words? One reason is that sometimes such elaborate terminology (= fancy words) is more accurate than simpler language - but only if everyone involved has the same understanding of the words used. Then, fancy words convey the impression that you know exactly what you are talking about. And finally, fancy words make harsh truths sound elegant and not too painful - especially if the one who reads/ listens does not understand what you mean. But then, what's the point in saying anything if it is not understood?
Since I believe that some of the more complicated texts I have posted in recent weeks are really important and I enjoy writing exercises, I shall summarise the texts in plain terms, for people who are not fond of jargon. Here's the first instalment: a crude plain-speak version of my post Donor Playgrounds and Unknowable Outcomes. Attention: I don't mean to offend anyone!

Adam Fforde and Katrin Seidel, two knowledgeable people who have spent a long time working in and researching on Cambodia, gave great presentations in Berlin earlier this week. Put plainly, what they said could be boiled down to this:
  • People who pay for and carry out development projects often pretend they know what they are doing, because they hold university degrees and they have done the same kinds of things in other places.
  • Usually, they are convinced that what they do will improve other people's lives, and they believe that they know exactly what changes are needed to improve other people's lives and what must be done to make these changes happen.
  • The reality is that many people who say they are experts in development have no idea of what life is really like in the places where they work and how people's lives change. Often, they don't even bother asking ordinary people about their ideas and what they would like to do to improve their own lives.
  • People who say they are development experts tend to contradict each other and make mistakes all the time. Those mistakes can have terrible consequences for other people.
  • To make matters worse, many "experts" don't pay attention to what happens around them. Sometimes, their work may mess up other people's lives, stir up quarrels and worse. But ordinary people who suffer from the "experts'" work have nowhere to go if they want to complain, or stop that "expert" work altogether.
Now, to end this terrible situation, more people who pay for and who carry out development work should start to listen to local people and learn about their lives. They must know that "expert" work is very dangerous and must be watched carefully by everyone who works with "experts". If something goes wrong, it has to be stopped.

(This is fun. I think I'll do this to some other texts. Watch this space.)

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