Words count!

Words count!

Photo Credit: Ben Barber

Let’s start the New Year by looking at how we talk about development. It is striking how certain concepts and buzzwords rally people around ideas and mobilize us into action. The buzzwords themselves become powerful change agents. Yet, when they mature into unquestioned orthodoxy, they can restrict our vision and dull our understanding. Here are two buzzwords we love to use in development that are ripe for a deeper look.


Development and sustainability go together like bricks and mortar. But this term now has two distinct meanings in development parlance. One meaning refers to policies and actions that safeguard the environment and do not deplete our natural resources. This meaning has gained currency over the last 15 years. The second, and at least in my experience more common use, refers to a recipient partner’s interest and ability to continue projects or reforms financed by donors once donor funding ends. This use is closely associated with the concept of country ownership. When USAID adopted sustainable development as its credo in the mid-1990s, it was a response to the criticism that donor-funded projects collapsed when the funding ran out, often up-ending years of effort. This was partly a result of donors not wanting to take on recurrent costs that were seen as the partner’s responsibility. The lack of serious planning for recurrent costs remains a major challenge in international development.

Yet, should sustainable development even be an objective in a world where technology is changing everything around us at an exponential rate? Do we really want to sustain yesterday’s solutions? I think not.

Adaptive development is probably a better term in an era where rapid change requires continuous retraining and organizational restructuring. In a world where disruption is the new normal, sustainability is obsolete.


This is my new favorite buzzword. The idea is that impact depends upon the size of the intervention, with the clear implication that small is not beautiful. The clamor for projects to go to scale is rooted in a legitimate critique that developing countries are littered with projects that never grow beyond the pilot stage. In contrast, digital technologies have spread like wildfire, maximizing the number of individual users and delivering stunning progress without relying on public finance. Mobile technology, for example, has revolutionized communication, money transfers, health care and access to information. No wonder that techno-philanthropists, whose wealth derives from this business model, are champions of the concept of achieving scale.

The problem is that a lot of fundamental human development challenges won’t be solved by an app. Many interventions are neither replicable nor scalable, because they address specific situations and behaviors bound by culture, politics and history. Public services require infrastructure (facilities, staff, training) that simply is too costly for poor countries to finance and maintain at scale without external resources. We know there are insufficient resources to meet critical needs, so we design projects to do the best we can with what we have. Failure to recognize resource constraints undermines program design and can lead us to see successful actions as failures because they failed to meet unrealistic expectations.

The terms sustainable and scalable have become ritual incantations that we use to support our aspirations or cloak difficult realities. Progress is often the accumulation of thousands of small actions and incremental changes in behavior over time. While it is true that one measure of a technology’s success is how quickly it goes to scale, this does not mean that all development projects must be sustainable and scalable to be effective.

What do you think? I welcome your thoughts on these and other development terms that have more power as dogma than in informing good development practice.

23 Responses

23 Responses to “Words count!”

  1. Adria Gallup-Black on

    This blog made me think about my grad school days, when every poli sci major was required to read Charles Lindbloom’s 1959 article “The Science of ‘Muddling Through.'” Lindbloom introduced “incrementalism” to the vocabulary of public policy, and concluded that in order for anything to get accomplished, public administrators needed to concentrate on agreement on actions (actual policies), not on abstract arguments for adopting those policies.

    Policy study lessons can be applied to the human development field, because they are both so closely aligned. “Incrementalism” is quite consistent with “adaptive development.” Stands to reason, as the period in history in which Lindbloom wrote his paper was no less volatile than the one we live in today. (Cold War, anyone?) We can think of scalability in terms of policy diffusion — i.e., a policy adopted in one community will be shaped by its adoption in a similar community. In the policy world, that diffusion is often incremental — thus, scalability can be achieved but it will be modest. Put another way, small can still be beautiful when describing the process rather than the result.

    “Incrementalism” never became the hot buzzword that “sustainability” or “scalability” are now, and it never will. But I’d argue that it still categorizes how things happen.

    Here’s a link to this article: http://urban.hunter.cuny.edu/~schram/lindblom1959.pdf

  2. Jeff Bakalchuck on

    This has been a most interesting conversation to follow. I don’t work in the development community, but rather for an educational testing company. In the Educational world we hear many of the same buzzwords that you hear in the development community. One that I hear over and over is “measurability”. Like sustainability, one needs to ask if this term should be part of the objective. After all, just because something can be measured does not mean that it is important and just because something is important does not mean it can be measured. Maybe the buzzword that needs to be used more often is “Importance”.

  3. Laura Madden on

    This is a fascinating discussion. I am wondering to what extent project implementation has integrated sociocratic consensus to engage and “sustain” the impacted community in the development outcomes? The project would not only be better supported and embraced in the development process but “learned” by those who are left to continue the work — maybe also strengthening the adaptability in the long run. This approach is gaining steam in policy decisions, but I think it also relates to the issue Bill Gates raised about the need to have “sustaining” stakeholders invested in the project early on rather than after.