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Rethinking the semantics of development

By Ximena Altamirano, Soriyah Carnegie, Tom Hemington, Sharada Kamble, Gabija Kucinskaite, Emily Norman, Matilda Trevitt, Nikita Vadolia

The politicisation of NGOs (or lack thereof) in the context of development pursuits has been a contested issue in the anthropology of development and humanitarianism since the 1990s. Central to this debate has been James Ferguson’s (1990) scathing critique of development as the ‘anti-politics machine’. Analysing development projects in Lesotho, Ferguson shows the instrumentality of international NGOs in the extension and implementation of state governance in the region, highlighting that the discourses and practices of ‘development’ can function as governing strategies, obscured through terms of neutrality and being ‘apolitical’.

The critique exposed the links between post-colonial objectives and international development policies that emerged in the geopolitical aftermath of World War II, and challenged the assumptions that ‘development’ practices are, or could be, apolitical. Two decades onwards, we mean to revisit this argument by evaluating the assumptions, both explicit and implicit, that inform development work and how these intersect in the language of international NGOs.

By dissecting the 2018 Save the Children report, our analysis can help reveal the subtle but powerful processes through which these portrayals and discourses of power are constructed and transmitted. To ‘save’ entails an exercise of privilege whilst being ‘saved’ signifies the passive, impersonal and objective role that the receiver is attributed. Although this may be a useful persuasive device to ensure donation, it inadvertently has the counter-effect of promoting a discourse established upon the presence of a helpless other. Both moral and political dependencies are established as the developed and underdeveloped parties are identified. Therefore, the notion of ‘saving’ becomes the trope whereby the intrinsic inequalities of issues such as poverty are continually reinforced and reproduced.

The use of particular forms of language in development discourse further helps frame political issues as technical problems that can be solved via scientific, universal techniques. For example, the quantification of development objectives removes situations of inequality from their political and historical contexts and portrays ‘success’ as the meeting of these numerical targets.

The supposedly politically neutral and technical language also limits the extent to which NGOs are able to enter the social and economic environments of the places they seek to develop. In doing so, development objectives are rendered simplistic, numerical targets, obscuring the complex social processes within the space of development. The Save the Children report (2018) repeatedly mentions the world’s poorest 20% and the numerical goals they should achieve but does not mention the historical exploitation and structural power imbalances that reproduce these inequalities.

The inability of NGOs to act upon the structural causes of inequalities leads to a situation where the help that they provide is limited to the immediate needs of the individual. Essentially, technicality leads to reductive practice on part of the development organisations, where the political root causes of many of the issues they seek to vanquish are systematically overlooked, and solutions entail material resources as opposed to social and political restructuring.

Although NGOs mobilise technical language as a way of ensuring their neutrality, as seen in the lexical dissection of ‘Save the Children’, the framing of development as neutral and apolitical is not solely constructed by NGOs themselves. Government intercession, particularly in the UK, through the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 is also complicit in enforcing apolitical frameworks for development. The passing of this Act meant that NGOs in receipt of any government funding are now legally prevented from lobbying for policy change. This perpetuates the issue of inaccessibility to politics for NGOs, with a number of MPs referring to it as the ‘Gagging bill’, highlighting its ability to silence those who oppose government policy (Jackson, 2013). With government policy being so instrumental in the conditions of poverty and disenfranchisement, how effective can the work of development be when bound by the limitations of enforced neutrality?

Even though the language used by development NGOs and charities can be understood as reductive and silencing, its very persistence is a testament to the universality of the messages they transmit and the access they grant to the places they wish to develop. Save the Children provides essential humanitarian support in 68 countries around the world, many of which are currently facing severe political conflict.

With a seemingly universal name and slogan and an apolitical stance, Save the Children is allowed to work in such areas, and subsequently reach a wider audience. The slogan acts as an effective mechanism through which the organisation’s aims are communicated and deployed. Moreover, making the message relatable and further signposting the need for it raises support and, in the long run, enables the organisation to continue their mission. The anti-political effect of the morally-laden language employed by Save the Children renders complex socio-economic processes excessively simplistic. However, it is important to highlight the function of apolitical language in allowing the charity to pursue its humanitarian goals.

In conclusion, anthropological analysis and critique of development practices of NGOs and charities is necessary for the rethinking of development, highlighting issues that often remain unchallenged. By deliberately depoliticising language, NGOs reduce their efficacy in providing genuine solutions to complex socio-political issues in the areas where they work. The problems engendered by this are further proliferated by government-enforced neutrality, denying them the ability to lobby for policy change. However, it would be naive to think that their projects do not have political consequences.

Considering this, would NGOs be better served acknowledging, and being allowed to acknowledge, the political nature of their work? As transparency in bureaucracy seems an increasingly valued virtue, it is important for anthropology to consider the potential of ‘neutrality’ through technical language as a technique strategically employed by governments in crisis situations.


Ferguson, J. (1990). The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jackson, G. (2013). House of Commons, Debates, ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill’ (Second Reading). Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab). Available at: (Accessed 06/12/2018).

Save the Children. (2008). “Still Left Behind? Tracking children’s progress against the pledge to Leave No One Behind”. Available at (Accessed 06/12/2018).