Do What I Say, Not What I Do: Decolonizing Language in International Development

Written by
Matt Kertman
June 23, 2021

by Matt Kertman, MPP '21 for Annotations Blog

“Language matters. The words we use shape the stories we construct of
people and places, and ultimately, the policies and decisions we make.”
- Sarika Bansal

Representation of colonialism
The Rhodes Colossus. Source: Cornell University - PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

In January 1949, in an inaugural address that sought to rally the post-war United States against the global rise of communism, President Harry Truman announced what would become his Point Four Program and planted the seeds of today’s international development industry. “We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas,” Truman said. Intentions aside, Truman’s program bequeathed what many scholars today consider an era of neocolonialism — in which Global North countries once again sought control over Global South countries.* As the international development and humanitarian community confronts this past, organizations should begin to decolonize by modernizing the language they use to describe their work.

Truman’s speech established a moral, economic, and political rationale for the channeling of resources from the United States to countries with “peace-loving peoples” to “help them realize their aspirations for a better life.” As scholars have noted, this approach created a “model [of development that] was basically westernization through a process of modernization. Ideas and experts were mostly exogenous and the models top-down and prescriptive.” It also sapped agency from recipient countries and people. Worse, because institutions, policies, resources, and norms from the Global North defined this development of the Global South, over the years the approach resulted in a power dynamic in which development became a “project reinforcing structures of local and global inequality [that] maintain[ed] the domination of the South by the North.” The use of particular language, narratives, and frames reflected and reinforced this neocolonial dynamic of social, political, and economic control.

As the international development and humanitarian community confronts this past, organizations should begin to decolonize by modernizing the language they use to describe their work.

For instance, Truman’s remarks were riddled with references to “victims” who were “primitive” and “stagnant.” Beyond the offensive nature of the terminology, Truman’s use of these words promoted a White Savior rationale for aid, in which the United States and other predominantly White nations could save impoverished countries with Black and brown people from their suffering. In the seven decades since, this White Savior trope metastasized into the White Gaze of development, which scholars define as a process that “measures the political, socio-economic and cultural processes of Southern Black, brown and other people of color against a standard of Northern Whiteness and finds them incomplete, wanting, inferior or regressive.” Examples of this abound in industry communications, reflected in pro forma calls for better governance, campaigns that champion capacity building, fundraising narratives that employ poverty porn — simplified stories that exploit the subject’s suffering to activate support —  and in nomenclature defined by Global North institutions.

Today, the humanitarian and development community is transitioning. An amalgam of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners are driving efforts to decolonize the industry. Key to this transition are post-colonial theories that interrogate development and humanitarian aid through the lenses of colonization, systemic racism, and socioeconomic interdependencies. These critiques also inform a new communications paradigm that is decolonized, equitable, and just. For example, instead of poverty porn stereotypes that portray people and places out context, these new approaches present authentic people with dignity.

It is past time for major development and humanitarian actors to review, reflect on, and revamp the language of their work.

To support further change, here are four ways that organizations can begin to decolonize their written communications:

  • Update internal style guides to eliminate and replace neocolonial words and phrases in communications materials. For example, replace “beneficiaries” with “participants” and eliminate stock phrases like “in the field” and “on the ground” that are drawn from a militaristic nomenclature.
  • Center the subject’s experience in stories. Prioritize the subject’s agency instead of their pain and suffering. Consider who is seen as credible, who is representing and who is represented, and whether a particular story humanizes its subject and foregrounds their experience or if it promotes stereotypes and harmful narratives.
  • Revise policies to make the implicit explicit. Organizations should mainstream race in their communications policies the same way that they have gender, ability, and socioeconomic class. Historical, racial, and other aspects of people’s identity are intrinsically bound up in development work and ignoring this privileges Whiteness.
  • Support and contribute to research focused on the creation of new, equitable storytelling frames that influence the public’s perception of global poverty. Existing research is insufficient and fails to explore decolonizing narratives. As a result, organizations face financial pressures to fundraise using current frames that rely on guilt, pity, and the White Savior trope.

Though communications is ancillary to long-overdue structural changes in the industry, it is also an organizational function where change can happen faster. Moreover, because many of these changes would be public, they could galvanize support for the larger decolonization effort and accelerate progress.

Despite calls from all corners of the industry to decolonize, the development and humanitarian community continues to rely on harmful power dynamics in promoting its work. In particular, the industry employs a lexicon denoted by racist, militaristic, and paternalistic language. This communications paradigm remains largely unexamined by major institutions within the sector, while most critical efforts to modernize it appear stuck in academia or informal practitioner perspectives. It is past time for major development and humanitarian actors to review, reflect on, and revamp the language of their work. While the community may continue its struggle to decolonize for some time, an important first step would be to modernize its communications.

* Author’s note: Throughout this piece, I use the terms Global North and Global South to refer to, respectively, wealthy, predominantly White countries that colonized poorer countries of Black and brown people. This geographic term is imperfect (e.g. Australia is located in the Global South), but is generally accepted within the industry.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included the ethnic category "Brown". We have revised the term to "brown" as per the JPIA style guide. JPIA capitalizes the racial categories "Black" and "White" following the APA’s Style and Grammar Guidelines on Racial and Ethnic Identity.