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What we talk about when we talk about aid: A plea for accuracy

The following post is by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk.

One thing that seems to get lost in debates over aid is the idea that “aid” is not a monolith. People talking about aid may mean church-to-church shipments of used clothes, World Bank loans to build dams, money transfers from donor governments, or expatriate-run projects that aim to provide services or improve the ability of the host government to govern. This is sloppy, careless language. It gets in the way of actually talking about aid.

We’re never going to have a useful conversation about aid effectiveness if we’re not even talking about the same things. When you ask if aid “works” – are you asking if financial transfers from donor governments to poorer governments actually reduce poverty? Are you asking if specific international development projects can achieve defined goals like reducing child mortality? Are you asking if aid gets used for its intended purpose instead of being diverted into graft?

If we’re going to talk about work as important – and expensive – as international aid, the least we can do is use accurate language. So, here’s my suggestion. Let’s stop using the word “aid”. Just drop it from our vocabularies because it is making our discourse worse. If you’re talking about development projects, then say so. Use those exact words: international development project. If you’re talking about budget support to poor governments, say so. Church gifts? That would be charity.

Sure, it sounds crazy. But it sure wouldn’t make things worse, and it might make our discussions a little clearer. We have plenty of ways to talk about this that don’t require a vague and unhelpful collective noun. Let’s use them.

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  1. Matt wrote:

    But “Project Thoughts” just doesn’t have the same ring to it!

    Posted January 12, 2010 at 4:41 am | Permalink
  2. claire wrote:

    Agreed Alanna. I also think aid language perpetuates power hierarchies between developing and developed countries, driving the belief that “poor” people are helpless waiting to be saved by do-gooder aid workers who have all the answers. Lets find categories to describe different types of ‘aid’ that also promote recognition of local people’s agency & capacity and balance the scales a bit.

    Posted January 12, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  3. J. wrote:

    Agree. Good post! Not to too-shamelessly self-promote, but… see

    Posted January 12, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  4. shin wrote:

    i don’t know.. isn’t ‘development project’ no less vague and as condescending a term?

    Posted January 12, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  5. john malpas wrote:

    Once you start banning the use of words you end up with a beaurocratic form of tyranny.
    Can you ban ‘aid’ but not ‘graft’.
    You want people or countries to put their hands in their pockets -well they may not feel like useing socialist ‘no speak’.

    Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  6. Don’t agree with this; aid is a useful shorthand to describe official development assistance. Yes, there are different kinds of aid, with some different effects but you could make this argument about almost any similar concept: ‘development’, ‘government’, ‘governance’, ‘economy’, ‘tax’, ‘revenue’, ‘politics’, ‘war’, ‘violence’, and so on and so on and so on.

    This shouldn’t blind us to the useful aggregation ‘aid’ provides – for example, in calculating aid dependence on WDR lines, we don’t need to distinguish budget support aid from project aid.

    Weaknesses in analysis that assume ‘aid’ is all the same is weak analysis, nothing to do with the word. Removing the word won’t suddenly give people a more subtle understanding of the concepts they’re dealing with.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 1:50 am | Permalink
  7. Fi McKenzie wrote:

    For what’s it’s worth, I don’t think the stopping using the term “aid” is either realistic or worthwhile. What is important is that we clearly define it in the contexts we use it and I think that’s what you’re possibly really trying to get at.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 5:08 am | Permalink
  8. Carly wrote:

    Stopping the usage of the word aid may not be realistic, but it would be nice to avoid the innumerable situations I’ve been in where I’ve said I’m an “aid worker” and that has been misunderstood as AIDS worker. Using”emergency assistance” also brings confusion with search and rescue services, which leaves us with “humanitarian”…which is perfectly fine with me.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  9. avam wrote:

    Agree with Shin and Ranil. Dropping the word Aid won’t make clarify the issue – and as Ranil rightly point out you could make this argument with just about any word/idea in current development discourse….some more include: ‘sustainable’, ‘participatory’, ‘elites’ etc.

    One could argue that as aid is such a broad term that incorporates various types of development – it at least allows different practitioners to engage in current debates on the topic, without becoming so specialised that each area of aid (e.g. large cash flows vs small charitable giving) are boxed away and do not benefit from larger cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral shifts in thought/practice.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink
  10. Laura F wrote:

    Hi Alanna, I don’t think we can get rid of the A-word entirely (or at least we’d have a tough time since it’s in our blog title, url, and approximately every post…) and I agree with other commenters that there are plenty of other commonly-used concepts that are just as nebulous, and possibly more annoying (“ownership” comes to mind.) Neither of these objections diminishes the real take-away here: that we as writers, students, thinkers, and practitioners have the responsibility to be as accurate as we feasibly can be with our language.

    Ranil said “Removing the word won’t suddenly give people a more subtle understanding of the concepts they’re dealing with.” No, but writing that uses words and concepts precisely might. While writing or editing in the days since reading your post I found myself stopping mid-sentence to ask: Is that the word I want? Or do I really mean something else? Thanks for the useful reminder.

    Posted January 13, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  11. Laura – I totally agree with your last paragraph. That’s just the point. Words are important, but we must use them with meaning and not allow them to simply be abused and thrown around without considering what they mean. Aid is a useful and important word (just as Ownership can be) and we need to take care of how it is used, because it offers us the ability to make analytical aggregations that we cannot make absent the word.

    I wrote something about this (more generally about development: I looked at Ownership and ‘Sustainable’ as well) a while back on aid thoughts.

    Posted January 14, 2010 at 1:35 am | Permalink
  12. Jim Forster wrote:

    I agree with Alanna that the word Aid covers activities that very, very different and thereby masks what’s really going on. Of course, we can’t regulate or legislate usage, but we can use more accurate terminology ourselves. At the very least, use a leading adjective – Government Aid, or Small-NGO, Big-NGO. However imprecise these seem they are still more accurate than leaving off the adjective.

    The activities are quite different, so let’s recognize that in our discussion.

    Posted January 15, 2010 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. By uberVU - social comments on January 12, 2010 at 1:14 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by alanna_shaikh: My guest post for @aidwatch, in which I suggest we stop using the word “aid”

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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