The anti-lexicon of peacebuilding: listening to Edward Saïd and George Orwell

I think Edward Saïd wrote somewhere that the USA can never hope to contribute to sustainable peace in the Middle East until it is willing and able to describe the situation there objectively, comprehensively and accurately. Good advice for President Obama and his new Secretary of State as they embark on four challenging years in the region. And good advice meanwhile for anyone, be they doctor, secretary of state, international NGO staff member or anyone else, who takes on responsibility to help others fix their problems.


George Orwell, in his 1940s essay, Politics and the English Language (downloadable freely through Google), developed six golden rules for writing clearly about politics:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Both Orwell and Saïd offer important advice for peacebuilders, who need to be as clear and complete as possible in their description of the contexts in which they offer to help build peace, so as to avoid misunderstandings and misdiagnoses.

Of course we can’t always describe things publicly as we see them privately. For example, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) might not be in a position to say clearly in public what it thinks of governance in Zimbabwe, because Zimbabwe, as represented by its government, is a member of the UN and thus a master of the UNDP. But all the more reason for the UNDP in Zimbabwe to get its analysis right, and express it as clearly as possible internally.

The point of this preamble is to emphasise that there is a premium on clarity of description in peacebuilding. Nevertheless, most of us who work in the sector regularly find ourselves breaking Orwell’s rules and failing to reach Saïd’s bar. (I know I do.) It is normal for people working in a given technical area to develop a common shorthand for describing the kinds of phenomena they seek to change, and how they seek to do so. It’s an efficient way of working.

But it can also be lazy and dangerous – as demonstrated in James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine about lazy development thinking in southern Africa. With that in mind I list here as examples, five words or phrases in common use which are sometimes evidence of lazy thinking and incomplete analysis, and therefore to ill-fitting or inadequate programming. I have avoided the usual suspects like “empowerment”, which is frequently cited as an example of lazy writing – because often it’s the humbler, less intrusive words and phrases which quietly do most to undermine the argument for peacebuilding.

1. Weakness. Analysts commonly write about “weak governance”, “weak civil society”, etc. This is OK if the weakness is qualified, e.g. governance institutions which are weak because they fail to provide people with an opportunity to influence decisions which affect them, or because they exclude particular sections of society. But taken alone, “weak governance” is a more or less meaningless phrase – and often masks the reality that prevailing governance systems are actually quite strong in some respects, e.g. in repression. Civil society too can only be described as “weak” in regard to some specific function – such as delivering services, providing policy alternatives, etc. The point is, systems, bodies, organisations or people can all be inadequate vis-à-vis a specific standards or objectives, but to call them weak in general terms does nothing to improve the analysis, nor to change things for the better. Indeed, it may become a distraction and an obstacle to change. E.g. International Alert has argued that “weak governance” is an inaccurate and unhelpful description of the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which would be more usefully described in terms of a resilient and effective patrimonial governance system, which skews policies and decisions so they sustain continued instability and violence.

2. Unaccountable. Analysts of governance often refer to leaders, governments, etc. as “unaccountable”. This is unhelpful, because few leaders are truly unaccountable – they are usually beholden to some group or other. By failing to capture this aspect of governance in our analysis, we fail to identify important obstacles and opportunities for change. When we describe leaders as unaccountable, it would be more helpful to explain to whom they are accountable, and for what. Typically, a dictatorial president is accountable to a faction or factions who help keep him in power, and is accountable for protecting the latter’s members while providing them with exclusive economic opportunities.

3. Youth, women – and other collective nouns for large groups of people. Programme analysis frequently includes broad statements about women (50% of the population, after all), or youth (frequently an even larger percentage). It is rare that all women or all young people are affected by the same factors in the same way, and even rarer for peacebuilding strategies or programmes to have an impact on all women or all young people. It is far more useful, for programming purposes, to say which women, or which young people are affected by the phenomena in question, and therefore which specific policy change might help to improve their situation. The words “youth” and “women” are probably the worst examples of this problem, but there’s a long list of other collective nouns which are similarly conducive to lazy thinking: young men, girls, the elite, the media, businesspeople, the private sector, civil society, and so on.

4. Community. Again, unless clearly defined, the word “community” often becomes quite meaningless. E.g. in the UK it became common in the face of Al Qaeda threats, to talk about the “working with the Muslim community” – when it’s hard to imagine there is a single community uniting all 1.5 million Muslims in the country. Labelling people as a community where there is none, can lead others to draw the wrong conclusions. Programme strategies often use the word as though “community” is an unalloyed good: as in community-level governance, community-owned solutions, and community projects. But as we all know, “community” often masks a great deal of inequality, with particular individuals and groups being excluded from decision-making, opportunity and rights, and it is important that peacebuilders understand the factors which perpetuate these problems, rather than ignore them and assume that community level solutions will always be good ones.

5. Conflict. A very basic word in peacebuilding which we often misuse. It’s fairly normal for peacebuilders to understand “conflict” in its broad sense, i.e. as a description of the unresolved differences between people and within society. That’s a useful definition, which allows us to identify the systems, skills and culture for conflict resolution and management as the bench at which we work. But even when the work parameters have been so defined, it’s still common for peacebuilding strategies to be defined and described in terms of “addressing the underlying causes of conflict”, rather than in more appropriate terms such as “addressing the reasons why conflicts become violent”.

No doubt there are countless other words and phrases whose misuse contributes to murky analysis and less-than-surgical programming. But I hope these five examples suffice to make the point. I doubt that a business marketing strategy defined at the level of generality all-too-common in peacebuilding, would convince investors to part with their capital. If so, then we should not get away with it in peacebuilding.

I am not claiming that one has to be able to describe everything with perfect accuracy and pinpoint precision, before embarking on peacebuilding in a particular context. But I do agree with Saïd that it’s important to describe things as accurately, objectively and comprehensively as possible if one is offering to help resolve complex problems. And I’d also suggest that Orwell’s six golden rules are useful guides to help us do so.

Phil Vernon, Director of Programmes

Comment on this blog here