And while we’re talking jargon…how about “innovation”?

From yesterday’s “But will this be sustainable?” also comes…

“This project will be innovative.” 

The development aid sector is not lacking in ideas or methods and it’s hardly appropriate to declare one’s self “innovative,” right?

Last year when I found the one-page piece I wrote about a local implementing partner’s monitoring activity for kids in 2004 still being showcased as an “innovative best practice” by a former large aid agency for I used to work (of course by now with someone else’s name on it), I questioned whether or not innovation is even possible in these big ships that are hard to steer.

I don’t want to set the bar low, but maybe, just maybe, doing your work well and making any progress at all in challenging, changing, and complex operating environments, (let alone bureaucracies), should be considered innovative in and of itself. Maybe we should look for evidence of innovation not in the latest idea or product as in the private sector, but in the fact that individual and collective reflection processes to identify and overcome obstacles occur, resulting in changes or adaptations in our work.

Moreover, aren’t the people who intimately know a problem from the inside out, more likely to see where the possibilities for innovation lie? In the scope of action by smaller grassroots groups focused on family and community structures, is there not the potential to draw upon “innovations” for larger programs? Ultimately, where we are looking for innovation and who defines innovation is most important.

What if we can re-conceptualize “innovation” for aid? What if the thing really makes something innovative is not the idea itself, but the learning that made it possible?


Why does jargon matter to people? Perhaps it’s because these words remind us that we’re involved in what @Semhar Araia describes as “intellectual debates over real people’s lives.”

And maybe that’s not such a comfortable place.

I recommend checking out last month’s issue of InterAction’s Monthly Developments, “Frustrated by NGO Jargon?” now online. Among some other really great articles, my piece, “It’s Not YOUR Project: Why possessive adjectives are the most detrimental aid jargon we use” is included on page 16.


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  1. I believe the word you are looking for is “curiosity.” Innovators have it, organizations don’t. So by measuring curiosity we can start to identify the players who are trying to learn – and from that – which organizations are likely to be innovators.

  2. Pingback: Sustainability and Innovation: Aid workers, some linguistic clarity please! | Practical Initiatives Network - the PIN blog

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