Developing countries. Low-income countries. Communities in need. Communities abroad. The cringe-worthy ‘Third World’. The Global South?
Here at Palms there is a pesky little consideration that pops up every now and then. Whether it is writing a Facebook Post, creating copy for Google Ads, or tinkering with a grant proposal, we inevitably have to identify where we work.
I live for the days when I get to refer to one specific country, like when we need an English Teacher in Timor Leste (incidentally, we need an English Teacher in Timor Leste). Even then the copy can get a bit wordy when I need to add some geographical context, like when we need a school nurse in the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati (incidentally, we need a school nurse in Kiribati. It’s a small island nation in the Pacific).
Many times, however, we need to refer collectively to the several countries in which we currently work. And by ‘we’ I mean our program partners, the local organisations on whose behalf we recruit an Australian professional in order to fill a local skill shortage. Here is an example of an elevator pitch response to the question: ‘Palms? Never heard of it. What does it do?’ Well, good sir, ‘Palms fills requests for professional skill development from communities abroad.’
Abroad is a broad category. It is also not the most important take away for the audience of that pitch. What makes Palms an industry leader in quality development is that our support is:
- a response to a request, not a response to a need we, unilaterally, have decided exists, and
- skill development by and for professionals, not stuff or money.
This answers what we do and for whom we do it. In this context, the identification of where we work should not be so verbose or vague as to overburden or overcomplicate this answer. Our communication is not academic explorations of terms of identification within the framework of participatory development. It is just a way to tell that mechanic in Melbourne that he could be training apprentices in Myanmar next year (incidentally, we’re recruiting a mechanic to work in Myanmar).
Our phraseology is a compromise between the conceptual and practical considerations that shape how we describe the location of our partner communities. Is ‘communities abroad’ the best description? Far from it. Most accurately, we work in communities which have requested our assistance for skill development and in which there is a proven shortage of this skill within the local area. For many readers, though, this is vague and incredibly wordy. ‘Palms? Is that some sort of landscaping company?’, ‘We might diversify one day, but no. Palms fills requests for professional skill development from communities which have a shortage of this skill within the local area’. This is almost offensively inoffensive, as though we are conspicuously trying to avoid something.
This isn’t entirely unfair as there are terms we actively avoid. Thankfully, language of development has moved away from ‘Third World’ and is gradually retiring the phrase ‘developing countries’, both of which imply a hierarchy with the ‘giving’ community or individual at the top. The developing/developed divide is particularly problematic as makes it easy for Australians to ignore the incidence of poverty in our cities and, most notably, our Aboriginal communities.
‘Communities in need’ is an awkward option as it sounds as though the writer is avoiding the phrase ‘developing country’ but hasn’t quite pinned down a rosy alternative. In truth, our partners have identified a need so this description isn’t entirely inaccurate. For example, the Faculty of Medicine at Divine Word University in Madang is a ‘community in need’ of a paediatrician (incidentally). ‘Low-income’ is inescapably hierarchical but it seems at least a little objective and critics can take that up with the World Bank. This has become the most common term used by development organisations. ‘The Global South’ is fantastic and I actually appreciate how it creates a divide without necessarily implying a hierarchy. For general audiences, though, it sounds like we’re recruiting a financial administrator to help penguins master MYOB.
I recently read an article about jargon in the development space. The article reaffirms that how we represent the communities for which we work matters. It shapes the perception of these people in the minds of our Australian readers and this representation must be respectful, accurate and inoffensive. At Palms, our partners lead their own development initiatives. They identify the skills shortages they wish to address, they choose the length of the assignment, and they have the final say on the individual recruit to join their staff. To describe these communities using a term or phrase that the aid industry has developed would undercut the autonomy and authority of our partners.
You may have been yelling the obvious answer at your screen for the last few minutes: ask our project partners what words we should use. Advocates of mainstreaming-inclusive-and-participatory-something-something would agree that this would solve the ethical dilemmas of language. But what happens when our Samoan partners tell us we should be using ‘developing country’, those in Myanmar back the term ‘low-income country’, and the Timorese opt for a completely unique term that they have workshopped themselves. We only have one website and it communicates, mostly, to Australian readers. Just as the terms we use must respect our partners and their communities, these terms must make sense to our readers without the need of a glossary of terms at the bottom of every page. The words we choose form a shorthand that conveys information in a concise and accurate way.
While the nuance of language may be a vibrant academic exercise, words are practical and our audience is time-poor. Those Google Ads? I get 90 characters to write my webpage summary. The grant proposals? The DFAT Friendship Grants gave a generous 10 words to write a project title and a whole 50 words for the project summary. So to pitch ourselves as an organisation that fills requests for professional skill development from ‘organisations which have identified a shortage of such skills in their local community’ or to tell teachers they can ‘Teach in a community that has identified a shortage of local expertise in English language education’ is not helpful. We risk losing the forest for the trees and alienating those who would otherwise have jumped at an opportunity to help a community abroad.
At the end of the day, we don’t work in places so much as we work with people. Like finance managers in American Samoa. Incidentally…
We are working to cultivate discussion on development and language. How would you reconcile the need for a comprehensive and accurate expression of where we work with the practical requirement for succinctness? Let us know at email@example.com