THE LAST WORD: Are you a stakeholder?

By Minega Isibo

Members of the committee for the preservation of Clear English have good reason to grow increasingly uncomfortable. The English language is currently witnessing an invasion of words and phrases that can best be described as ‘management-speak’. Not content with causing confusion in the work place, the phrases have now been unleashed into the public domain.

Consider Exhibit A; the wonderfully vague expression ‘stakeholders.’ These days everyone is a stakeholder in something or other; we know this because every night there is someone on the news letting us know about it. Precisely what this entails is never clear, but it is now used with such reckless abandon that it threatens to officially replace certain words like ‘citizen’ for which it is now used interchangeably. The words very vagueness makes it useful as a phrase to add gravitas to any discussion. It’s hardly a new phenomenon, the government under Tony Blair was particularly fond of it although they raised the bar with management-speak to levels we can only dream of (one can only marvel at the genius who not only created the term ‘blue-skies thinking’ but then convinced the Prime Minister to make an entire department out of it). However in the last year or so this phrase has become so ubiquitous that one cannot help but marvel at how this expression has caught on so well.

I have also found myself growing increasingly baffled by phrases that use the word ‘oriented’. Specifically the twin terrors of ‘solution-oriented’ and ‘impact-oriented’. I mean, if a plan or project is not geared towards making an impact, then why is anyone even involved in it? Both phrases are redundant but you have to have a sneaky admiration for people who can turn this redundancy into such an art form. One hopes this creativity is also being applied more constructively.

However there is no buzzword quite as popular and as adaptable as ‘capacity-building.’ If this word didn’t exist, someone would have invented it. It is the multi-purpose phrase which serves as a shorthand for ‘things we need to do’ and similar themes along those lines. Countless conferences are held to discuss this issue but cynics may be forgiven for thinking that the only capacity-building going on during these meetings is the country’s capacity to host conferences. Recently I saw a banner advertising a STAKEHOLDERS WORKSHOP ON CAPACITY-DEVELOPMENT. My head hurt just reading those words and I sense I was not alone in this regard. Why is it considered essential for such headache-inducing language to become a compulsory aspect of public discourse? And considering the fact that this kind of language is now used so frequently, we are now at a point where damage-limitation is the only remedy.

I am sure most of these expressions are often used by well-meaning people and I’m sure there are many who consider the entire phenomenon to be harmless. I have a friend who can hardly keep the laughter in every time he hears or reads the phrase ‘knowledge-based economy’. Likewise I can occasionally chuckle to myself every time I see one of the offending phrases being dragged out in the name of clarifying policy when of course it usually accomplishes precisely the opposite.

However it is not difficult to see how this could cause problems. An over-reliance on important-sounding buzzwords could cloud the actual issues and make it much harder to identify and tackle them. The appearance of doing something becomes more important than actually doing it- a recipe for disaster.

In the long run, more energy may be expended on perfecting this management-speak to the detriment of finding and implementing actual solutions and inertia could kick in. Words and not actions will become the more fashionable way to tackle problems and needless to say, this would not be a welcome phenomenon. British comedies like ‘The Thick of It and Yes Minister’ have played on the paralysis that may affect institutions which are too reliant on buzzwords and sound bytes to get work done. The audience might laugh, but the laughter is tinged with discomfort. It would be no laughing matter if our decision-making mirrored that of British comedy. As the country stays on course for Vision 2020, we should be wary of reaching a point where style triumphs over substance. Sadly at the current pace, we could well be getting there.