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We’ve looked at ill-defined terminology before. The non-profit sector not only loves its jargon (MEAL policy, anyone?) but what about those popular — and hazy — words that sound like they really nail something on the head, but upon closer inspection collapse under the weight of their lofty ambitions. ‘Building capacity’ or ‘sustainability’ or ‘delivering impact’ (ack!) are all suspect terms and rightfully so. They’re overused and defined so broadly as to become meaningless. I’ll offer up ‘empowerment’ to demonstrate what I mean.

 

Empowerment was (yes, past tense) a beautiful word signifying the demand for social justice in racial politics, for women, for ethnic minorities, and any others seeking to express their diversity and rights before the eyes of the law. Now empowerment has come to encapsulate your freedom to post a selfie with or without clothing, your ability to choose (and thereby endorse) one flavoured water over another, or even manage your carefully curated online clicktivism.

 

Resiliency

 

Here’s another term: ‘resiliency’. This is a word that is about to be co-opted right out of context and I’d like to start a campaign to save it. Sustainability, empowerment and capacity-building are wonderful words that have sadly grown meaningless (like ‘to curate’, for that matter) as they become buzz words entering the diluting waters of the mainstream. A daycare delivers social impact via your child’s targeted learning outcomes while empowering little Olivia and Jack to reach their full potential because interacting with mud pies builds their capacity. Uhm, OK.

 

In development circles resiliency is a remarkable word because in short, it refers to communities’ ability to get along just fine without too many donors and aid workers hovering around telling folks what to do. The UK medical journal The Lancet dryly observed not long after the earthquake in Haiti that aid agencies are increasingly acting “according to their own best interests rather than in the interests of individuals whom they claim to help”.

 

The authors further described large aid agencies as being "highly competitive" with one another and "obsessed with raising money" and worse, are “polluted by the internal power politics and the unsavoury characteristics seen in many big corporations”. This tough criticism was aimed directly at the earthquake relief efforts, but the point is the same: a ‘West knows best’ stance helps no one. There was “little to no collaboration” with the existing grassroots charities that likely have better networks and as such are “better placed to immediately implement” relief efforts. Resiliency is acknowledging the inherent ability of others and is related to their agency, experience and context. It sounds simple, but it can be extraordinarily difficult to untangle our own egocentricity.

 

An Insider Approach

 

In my campaign for keeping resiliency in its proper (read, awesome) context it may be useful to adopt an emic approach, defined anthropologically as an ‘insider’ perspective. What does the community have going on for itself and within its individuals? This stands in opposition to an etic approach, typified by an ‘outsider’ perspective imposing itself on explanations of the community and its behaviour.

 

By giving voice — acknowledging resiliency — we fundamentally shift the perception of an individual’s or community’s ability to thrive. That’s a campaign I’m happy to champion.

 

So no, while your dietary choices, for example, might be emic, ordering only low-cal, gluten-free, raw foods do not demonstrate your resiliency.

 

Dana McNairn is the CEO of KOTO, an award-winning nonprofit social enterprise and vocational training programme for at-risk youth

Dana McNairn

For the last ten years Dana McNairn has worked for NGOs on the frontline of human rights and gender-based violence, as well as INGOs such as the Canadian Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. She is the CEO of KOTO, an award-winning nonprofit social enterprise and vocational training programme for at-risk and disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.

Website: danamcnairn.com

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