Everybody in the world has a feature in their job – just one, niggly little nasty – that makes them hate their industry.  It doesn’t matter how much you love your job, because that does not make you exempt.  It might just be a flicker of irritation that is gone in a moment, or maybe pass in a few minutes, or even ebb away slowly at the end of a particularly stressful few hours a before a deadline.  As the common pharmaceutical advice is wont to say: if it lasts longer than 16 hours, see a health professional (or quit your job).


There are few people I know who enjoy their job as much as I do.  I get to speak with some of the brightest minds in the International Development arena about how the space can grow and evolve.  I can represent youth interests on the global stage, partner with some of the heaviest hitters in delivering meaningful output, and help people of all kinds of educational and literacy backgrounds in crafting their worldviews into sophisticated editorial content.

As a lover of language, it’s a privilege to help Wellbeing for Women Africa’s Youth Partners cultivate their expertise into something that can be beamed all around the world.

But everybody has their nitpicks, and I am no exception.

It’s not bureaucracy, it’s not consultation, it’s not any of the common gripes people utter about International Development.  No.

It’s the acronyms.

I know it sounds silly, but hear me out: International Development is a sector that aims to be a lot of things to a lot of people in a lot of different countries, but most of all its function is to facilitate opportunity.  That’s a sweeping generalization, but it makes a lot of sense at its barest bones.  Education, health, sanitation, governance, accountability, regulation, human rights, and all the rest all fold together so citizens of low socio-economic countries can have greater access to opportunity.  The right kinds of opportunity can, in turn, empower entire countries to a higher standard of living.

But opportunity cannot be facilitated without accessibility; telling a little girl that her parents have decided she can go to school means very little if the school is 40 kilometers away and she can’t walk it.  Telling somebody who uses a wheelchair that they will be given priority consideration by prospective employers means little if the workplaces they’re applying to have no ramps.  And expecting people in emerging nations to somehow know and understand all of the International Development buzzwords when they’re wrapped into acronyms six to eight characters long is to immediately exclude them from any space where they can carry meaningful influence.

Once upon a time, the convenient catch-all to talk about mothers and babies was MNCH.  It stood for maternal, newborn, and child health, and whilst it was a little clunky, it got the job done.  Then somewhere along the way, the sector decided to add reproductive health to the bundle, since it allowed for analysis of a wider breadth of data: RMNCH.  Then somebody noticed that, technically, adolescents should be incorporated into this scope too, since their reproductive and sexual health is oftentimes intertwined with pregnancy, childbirth, and newborn health.

When it was suggested at a side event of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA, of course) in 2016 that we should pop the letter ‘S’ at the front of RMNCAH to include the word ‘Sexual’, I think I may have perceptibly groaned.  Which was embarrassing, because everybody else was nodding their heads in passionate agreement.

At a certain point, even a mere acronym can become a tautology.  And in this is my greatest grievance with what the youngsters in the International Development refer to as “U.N.-ese”: when a definition for something is expanded so wide that it can encompass everything, it means nothing.  SRMNCAH not only sounds like one of the houses in a Harry Potter book, but it also has shoehorned all the subtleties and nuances of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) into a maternal health space.  This is great for collaboration and funding opportunities at the between civil society organizations and funding partners, but its ambiguity is more likely, I presume, hinder its application on the ground.

The World Health Organization has recently begun consultation with key maternal health partners on a document due for release that defines a new classification of Skilled Attendant at Birth: the Quality Maternal Newborn Health Care Provider (or, for a mouthful: QMNHCP).*

The only problem?

The core competencies to define a QMNHCP are just the core competencies for midwives, repurposed.  And yet, the QMNHCP paper does not use the word midwife even once – so much the better to make the term a one-size-fits-all label that removes the nuances of individual titles such as doctor, nurse or midwife and, in its attempt to be more efficient and definitive, instead has convoluted the notion of healthcare professional to the point of obsolescence.  So what happens when a woman in a rural hospital is suffering fistula during childbirth, and a midwife is turned away by some well-meaning (but ultimately confused) administrator who cries out for a QMNHCP without quite knowing what they’re looking for? Well, one would hope nothing too dire.  But in overstressed and under-resourced health frameworks, is it really so bad to call a spade a spade, and a midwife a midwife?

I understand that International Development uses complex, multifaceted terms because they are necessary to embody complex and multifaceted ideas.  But when we are aiming to implement these high-level policies on the ground of countries that do not speak U.N.-ese, we do both ourselves and those we are intending to support, a grave disservice.  When an administrative rationale for a new policy or law is too difficult for the general public to understand, they feel robbed of their ability to participate or influence it.  And in a development framework, where the majority of funding and strategy comes from actors based in higher socioeconomic countries, there is a risk of well-intentioned and well-reasoned initiatives being interpreted as prescriptive, or even colonial.

As I said at the beginning of this piece: I love International Development.  This sector is rampant with big ideas and bold solutions, and there is opportunity for innovation and momentum as we continue to adapt to the Sustainable Development Goals structure.  But there is a great pressure for those who are either young or new to the sector to adopt this dense vernacular of seemingly meaningless and endless streams of babble, or risk their insights being taken less seriously than they deserve.

Those of us who have been successful in this sector have, in no small way, achieved this due to our ability to adapt to the rigid language of the development space.  This linguistic flexibility is a charmed position, with a significance that cannot be overstated.  This inadvertent elitism should not be defended out of loyalty.  This desire for true, cross-functional and cross-cultural global engagement is what informs Wellbeing for Women Africa’s entire structure; when we call for our advocates to “change the conversation”, we do not mean it abstractedly. 

When our acronyms are over-complex, our meaning becomes too diluted.  Accordingly, we become less comprehensible, which, in turn, makes the space exclusionary to anybody who doesn’t understand.  The sad outcome? We’ve made our space inaccessible to the very people who would benefit the most from the opportunity to engage with us.

Many people lack the education or ability to seamlessly slip into the sector and start coughing up Scrabble tiles, but they still deserve to be heard.  If we, as International Development actors, truly wish to succeed in bringing our solutions for world’s most pressing issues to scale, then we must also give serious consideration to the language we use to do so for those who have not been so privileged.


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