The New Humanitarian Annual Report 2021

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Words matter

Are you earmarking enough synergy?

Humanitarian Buzzwords - a new agenda?
Humanitarian Buzzwords - a new agenda? (IRIN)

Words matter.

In the business of saving lives, they should matter even more.

A speaker at a recent aid conference talked about "capacitating actors". The audience nodded.  She wasn't talking about theatres or electricity. 


Click through to the documents explorer - then click a word to dig deeper in 350,000 words of policy

Click through to the documents explorer - then click a word to dig deeper in 350,000 words of policy

Donors, aid professionals, NGOs and diplomats will be ploughing through a pile of papers on the future of humanitarian aid this week. 

There are more than 400 submissions to the World Humanitarian Summit, most proposing ways to improve the aid system in technical or issue-specific areas, or in funding and coordination.

To navigate this trove of documents, we asked our readers and colleagues to help us come up with a list of terms that reflect the zeitgeist in humanitarian affairs, while including some painful examples of cliché, jargon and waffle. Our collection is around 100 terms - starting with "accountability", "broker", "complementarity", and so on. They're not all bullshit, but we would say they are buzzwords.  Then, to help gauge the mood and get a flavour of the debates in humanitarian affairs, IRIN ran a computer analysis of 28 recent policy documents, totalling about 350,000 words,to find the terms that crop up the most, and the documents which use them most liberally. 


And the winner is... "Actors" - click through to the explorer and add your search term at the bottom

And the winner is... "Actors" - click through to the explorer and add your search term at the bottom

In amongst the jungle of PDFs, there are new ideas, relatively bold positions, and a healthy dose of self-criticism. There's also a rich trail of buzzwords - often about 10% of the vocabulary of the document in our sample.

Some technical terminology is of course normal in any field. "Clusters" are a thing in humanitarian situations, like it or not. "Partnerships", although misused and vague, is a word that is forgiveable and useful. But too often jargon, ambiguity and cliché undermine meaning and intent. 

In the graphs below we rank documents by their usage of our "Buzzword 100(+)" and look for the hits and misses.  


Send us any document and we'll run it through our buzz-o-meter and give you the results. Contact @irinnews on Twitter

If you're trying to pay attention in future meetings and (even) the World Humanitarian Summit discussions, we've made a handy bingo game to keep you alert. Click here to play Humanitarian Buzzword Bingo. Tweet us with #Bingo when you get a row. You know you want to. 



Humanitarian Buzzwords - a new agenda?

Actors is the top buzzword by far - it's a catch-all word to mean almost any combination of human beings in any form of association. Rebel groups, individuals, governments, charities -- they're all actors. We say it's time for actors to take a bow.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

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