Language Matters

Would you adopt a village in Ethiopia?

Below, see excerpts from an email conversation between myself and a new blogger about how language matters within aid relationships.

L: I just started blogging a few weeks ago because I am working on a project with ORG X on adopting a small village in Ethiopia.

J: I would humbly urge you to reconsider the phrase that you are “adopting” a village in Ethiopia. This sets up the people you are trying to serve as child-like victims who need saving. I’m sure this is not what you intend to convey, but I believe language really matters.

L: I can see how the language of “adopting a village” might be seen in a negative light. The money ORG X raises is used to fund whatever initiatives the people and community leaders want—all community driven. None of the ORG X folks push an agenda. They just bring money and resources that the village leaders have access to. The effort is to help the village develop necessary infrastructure to become more sustainable. The “adoption” is a 3-5 year commitment of funds to help the village get itself out of poverty.

J: Language is tough, isn’t it? Adoption has its “bad” connotations and I see on the website that that’s the word used by ORG X itself. Yet it’s concise, it embodies a longer-term commitment. Support seems too loose by comparison and empowerment is great but it’s a phrase that has unfortunately lost much of its true meaning from overuse. It’s more words, but maybe you could simply share that you are dedicated to helping the people of Village X to improve their lives through X, X, and X over the next few years. In this phrase, the people are the agents of change. And this seems more in line with what you’ve described above.

L: Exactly! That was what I was struggling with. Maybe something like…commit? Or partner? Or sign on? Or something using the word “sister city”? I only used the word adopt because they used it. I guess to me it feels more personal—I think what they are trying to convey is the one-on-one feel though maybe it seems more parent/child than friend/friend.

Maybe “befriend” Village X? Partner with this sister city and help them raise themselves from poverty?

I want to make sure the language is strong enough to evoke attention here. And you know how people here can be. I definitely don’t want it to come off like a savior kind of thing. More like sharing resources because if the roles were reversed, I would hope people would share with my community. Maybe a “virtual” sister city (since I am sourcing from the internet?)

What advice would you offer?


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  1. What about “sponsorship” or “fellowship” those are words that are used when you are providing funds but the person is still conducting the work or attending the conference. They might work when talking about a community too. I think that “sister city” is commonly used but doesn’t have real meaning. Some sister cities don’t provide any funding, just cultural exchange. Good luck!

  2. People are also irrational (as a group). Somewhere I read that many more donors will give to help “10 percent of the people” in some refugee camp (whose total pop was said to be 50,000) than will give to help 5,000 people in a refugee camp. The actual amount of good is the same in both cases, but words twist how many people give.

    Shouldn’t the wordings that actually help more people matter to some extent? If not, our future might consist of “co-empowered” villages “befriended” by projects with carefully worded language, supported by “sister cities,” and yet still lacking the resources to do much.

  3. Nice post. As soon as you forced me to think of it, the patriarchal side of “adopt” stood out. It’s hard to see the words we use every day.

    Your “friend” suggests the word “partner”. Certainly not a word that suggests service to victims. But I’ve seen plenty of aid programs that are based on a partnership, and the term seems more tied to the marketing of the aid than to any real description of the aid process. Potential donors like the idea of being a partner, don’t they? But it hides what is often a highly unequal relationship between giver and receiver. And though Org X says it isn’t so, there are just too many partnerships in the aid world where the idea of partner is window dressing. Given attitudes of many aid workers themselves, “adoption” might be more accurate.

  4. All terms are complicated and have various levels of implicit power relations determined by the party doing the naming. So both parties need feel comfortable with the term in question.

    The day a Southern organisation refers to a donor as its ‘partner’, the donor will be able to do likewise.

    Adoption describes the act of adopting.

    When two towns in, say, the UK and Nicaragua decide to enter into a long-term commitment, they refer to it as ‘twinning’ or ‘linking’ – a bit twee for my taste, but at least these reflect a horizontal relationship which is not based on the transfer of money.

    The book I co-edited with Andrea Cornwall – Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords – unravels much of this aid-related jargon.

  5. pm

    with respect, relax. it is only among development types that I hear this term language is important. It comes from the mandate that we should call girls girls and women women. don’t get the two confused fair enough, I agree. But this is marketing, your average donor who is going to adopt a village needs simple accessible language. They do not see the difference and frankly, as a person in the business for over 20 years it’s mostly lost on me. Some politically correct types will get upset but most of us just don’t care. Use the language which will be most effective in raising money to help the village. It’ such a small difference. This is the reason organizations don’t grow they get caught in these fruitless discussions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Move on.

  6. A comment on LinkedIn: “Hello. Great article; I would, however, be more interested in actually helping to adopt a village in Ethiopia. Would you happen to know where I can gain more information about that?”
    You win some. You lose some.

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