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Devspeak: are the words we use doing more harm than good?

So much of the NGO jargon that we see purposely exists to tell people who holds power and who doesn’t.

Sarika Bansal

Sarika Bansal, author, journalist and editor of BRIGHT Magazine, who I interviewed about the use of words within the NGO sector for the Storytelling for Impact podcast recently, is someone who doesn’t mince hers.

Development and NGO clichés can be problematic for a variety of reasons. Terms like “giving voice to the voiceless” and “third world” can feel condescending, while “capacity building” is a term which is so vague as to be almost meaningless – something helpful to hide behind for those running ineffective programmes.

Other forms of sector jargon have unnecessarily made their way into communications aimed at the public: “Global South”, “the field”. Then there’s the terms that have had the life sucked out of them by endless repetition – words which may not always be backed up by an organisation’s work on the ground (anyone care for some “empowerment”?).

The term “Third World” stopped being fit for purpose long ago, as Bansal told me: “The term was created during the Cold War and the First World was Western Europe and all the allies, the Second World was the Soviet Union and the Third World was everyone who wasn’t aligned with either side. So whenever people talk about visiting the Third World, I say “Oh, you mean Switzerland?”

What I took from my conversation with Bansal is that there are numerous unhelpful words still in everyday use in the NGO sector – but that there are pros and cons for using most expressions and that over-policing the way people speak would be counterproductive.

So how can we encourage people to put a bit more thought into how they communicate, without being too prescriptive?

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“My biggest tip is to think about who has power and agency and ask yourself: are you using language that amplifies the power and worth of the people your work is supposedly done in service to, or is it taking away that power?” Bansal said. “How do I speak in a way that opens up a conversation and allow the community that I’m supposedly benefitting to actually participate and not just receive but actually feel like they have co-ownership of whatever project we’re doing?”

Tips for changing our language

Here are few more ideas:

  • Check out Conscious Style Guide, a website which aims to help writers and editors think critically about using language—including words, portrayals, framing, and representation—to empower instead of limit. In one place, you can access style guides covering terminology for various communities and find links to key articles debating usage.
  • Use human-first terms instead of labelling people with a quality or situation. For example, “children living in a refugee camp” is preferable to “refugee children,” or “person with disabilities” is preferable to a “disabled person.”
  • If people’s safety is not at risk, call them by name.
  • Proactively ask contributors how they want to be identified and/or represent themselves. If it is not doing harm to others, use their words and terminologies.
  • Increase the opportunities that people have to tell their own stories in the way they want to tell them.
  • Work closely with individual and communities to promote active participation throughout the storytelling process, including sharing back language choices and content with contributors for their feedback.
  • Be as specific as possible when referring to groups of people to avoid stereotypes and to make language more accessible.
  • Use plain language when possible and avoid jargon.
  • Check out Dignified Storytelling, sign their pledge to tell stories characterised by deep respect, full transparency, and social responsibility and consult their recent report on the language of dignified storytelling
  • Avoid words that perpetuate power imbalances (beneficiaries, giving voice to people, third world, “saving” people).
  • Rather than waiting for your organisation to adopt a wholesale change in its language, look for small ways to use language differently, building momentum for change.

Susannah Birkwood is the creator and host of the Storytelling for Impact podcast. For more info, visit