The language of development

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By Ramon Dacawi


Friday, August 22, 2014

THE issue on the language of development may be found in the humor of that eye- and mind-catching, San Miguel Beer product endorsement by Manny Pacquiao. From the menu,the boxing legend orders “ roasted “mountain legume” as “pulutan” (finger food) for his beer session with fellow sports celebrity Bata Reyes and other friends.

Television viewers need not strain for the meaning of the three-word combination. In a second or two, it comes solid and clear, almost as swift as any three-punch combination from Pacquiao: a dish serving of roasted peanuts, a legume native to the indigenous peoples in the mountains of South America.

My mind bounces to the late Baguio boy and lawyer Art Galace's analogy to explain the difference between involvement and commitment. He said it can be found in a breakfast plate of ham and egg. The chicken gave the egg, and that's involvement. The pig contributed the ham and that’s commitment.


The whole point of the ad and the ham-and-egg comparison is a lesson for so-called development staff and institutions, be they fund grant agencies, consultants , workers in the field, in government or non-government organizations, “ civil (or uncivil?) society” or whatever term they tag themselves with but are all pushing for “good governance”, “gender sensitivity” and whatever issues there may be needed to be addressed to empower beneficiary communities as effective “stakeholders” , “champions” and partners through “engagements” such as “summits” and “strategic planning” designed for the formulation of “well-defined missions and visions” or adoption of programs of action or declarations of commitment through SWOT analysis, benchmarking, team building and whatever processes are relevant to facilitate and achieve “sustainable development”, the popular key term coined at the Rio Summit in 1992.

The beer ad and Art’s comparison both reflect the need to simplify the emerging language of development that complicates our task to improve our neighborhoods, our communities, our nations and our world.

The immediately preceding paragraph does not. It shows my confusion and struggle to understand development gobbledygook, my serious need for a development agency to sponsor me to a seminar on the meanings of these elegant words, tags and phrases they churn out now and then, purposely, or purportedly to speed up development work.

This word-coining method towards a common language often defeats its purpose. It tends to alienate from each other development workers and villagers who are the targets of development. Or home-grown village leaders from their own village when they come back from a training and start mouthing the bureaucratese or” civil society” jargon they had learned from government agencies and non-government organizations which sponsored their introduction to development language. Well-meaning it may be, imposition of development language on a village which has its own smacks of cultural insensitivity and ignorance.

It took me sometime to wonder why NGOs had to change their name to “civil society”, and whether there is also such a thing as “uncivil society”. It points to government as the “uncivil” sector, even as lack of civility is not exclusive to those in government. In the same token, lack of transparency, corruption and mediocrity are not a monopoly of those in government.

I feel like Hagar the Horrible, the Viking-looking comics strip character. While walking through his town’s main street, someone inside a bar shouted “barbarian” at him. Hearing the label, Hagar strode into the public library for a dictionary. Finding what the label means, he took the tome to the bar and poked it on his accuser’s head.

Development jargon got into our heads that time we joined a team that met (touched base) with village folks in Northern Sagada, Mt. Province.

Our team presented (in “matrix” form and in terms we thought were faithful to the language of development) a “community-based” program to protect a water source the villagers share with other villages.
We realized our language and the project features and figures on manila paper we posted on the board immediately raised suspicion. A villager asked if it was another project of government, through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The query raised our suspicion they’d been presented with similar patterns and projects before.

Another asked if it was our project. Thinking it would help, as I was the only team member not from Sagada, I said the project was for the villagers to implement. Still, it took some discussions before they were assured that it was, indeed a genuine “community-based” project to be undertaken by them, not us

Then there was the language and form of our presentation. Then town mayor Thom Killip, now the presidential assistant for development of the Cordillera, immediately saw through the confusion and came to our rescue. He told his constituents that they ignore the terms we used in the presentation, as they have been doing projects and programs for their villages over the generations the indigenous way and in their own language.

With that explanation, the language of development shifted to that of the village. The project, presented as “headwaters enhancement”, was renamed “Tubbogan”, a native term which roughly means to increase water production, which was its purpose.

Forester Manny Pogeyed, a native of the place who prepared the project proposal approved by the United Nations Development Fund, found relief. He knew he was home in Sagada whose farmers also produce and roast mountain legume.

With the language of development broken, the villagers offered us lemon grass tea and finely roasted Fidlisan (or Pidlisan) coffee. (e-mail: for comments).

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on August 23, 2014.


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