Ditch the jargon to save development, says Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart, former U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: Patrick Gorman / Overseas Development Institute / CC BY-NC

LONDON — Development professionals must “break out of jargon” in order to “save this field,” according to the former U.K. secretary of state for international development.

In an interview for Devex World, Rory Stewart said excessive jargon makes it difficult to communicate with citizens about aid and to discuss the details of programming.

“If we are to save this field we must break out of jargon and rhetoric and universal solutions and theories and focus on the quality of delivery on the ground,” Stewart said in the interview with Raj Kumar, Devex’s president and editor-in-chief.

“Get to the detail. If what you are saying is ‘Why have we only included the women in the peace process in Syria but not the Kurds,’ say that. Don’t use the jargon word ‘inclusivity.’”

— Rory Stewart, former U.K. secretary of state for international development

During his 2019 tenure leading the now-defunct Department for International Development, Stewart said he almost wanted to ban words like “sustainability, inclusivity, strategic, long term.”

“You say those things, nobody disagrees, everybody nods happily,” Stewart said. “But what nobody actually does is really think about what that means in Mali.”

Instead of using jargon, he advised: “Get to the detail. If what you are saying is ‘Why have we only included the women in the peace process in Syria but not the Kurds,’ say that. Don’t use the jargon word ‘inclusivity.’”

Using too much jargon also has consequences when communicating with citizens, who need to be convinced of how their taxes are being spent through official development assistance, Stewart added.

“Often we speak to voters in very, very technocratic language, we always speak in numbers. We talk about educating 100 million girls, which is a wonderful thing, but doesn’t feel very real to people,” he said.

He urged development leaders to put more of a “human emphasis” on front-line workers.

“We need to move away from the world of people sitting behind desks, moving bits of paper around, to making the real heroes of the project the person that is really delivering the school … Strangely we've created a world where too often all the plaudits and promotions go to those in head office,” he said.

But Stewart admitted it was “very, very complicated, solving this problem of how we communicate to people.”

For those in government, he suggested “asking yourself as a civil servant, as a minister — is this how I would spend my own money?”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.