Words matter: that’s why Oxfam is launching an inclusive language guide

Helen Wishart Influencing, Power Shifts, Rights

What do you think of the term “developing countries”? Ever felt uncomfortable saying “beneficiaries”? Helen Wishart introduces Oxfam’s new inclusive language guide and sets out why it’s time for all of us in NGOs to consider the power in the words that we use…

Cover of guide
Cover of Oxfam’s new guide

Why should people working in ‘international development’ care about the words they use? The short answer is that language has power, in particular the power both to oppress and to liberate.

In the past, Oxfam and our peers in the sector have been guilty of ‘white saviour’ narratives, with the words we use reinforcing stereotypes about the people we work to support. This was wrong, and we are learning from decolonial activists to change that. Making conscious choices in language can reframe issues, rewrite tired stories, challenge problematic ideas and build a radically better future based on a survivor-centred, intersectional, anti-racist and feminist vision of equality.

Also, not knowing which words to use can itself be a problem that can reinforce inequality. For example, many people want to write in a way that is inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people, but are not sure of the language preferred by those people and communities (see below) and don’t want to accidentally get it wrong – and so avoid doing so altogether.

That’s why at Oxfam we think it is so important that the language we use reflects our values and work and that is why today we’re launching the Inclusive Language Guide, a resource to support people in our sector who have to communicate in English.

excerpt from guide
Excerpt from guide looking at alternatives to the term “developing countries”

What is the Inclusive Language Guide?

The guide is a resource to support people in our sector who have to communicate in English to think about how the way they write can subvert or inadvertently reinforce intersecting forms of inequality that we work to end.

It is based on a set of feminist principles for language use that centre the power and agency of people experiencing inequality. It gives examples of how you can put these principles into practice in your writing and day-to-day conversation. It also includes phrases and concepts that we may not use much at the moment in our work and writing but which are important to understand in order to recognise and challenge intersecting power issues in our work.

Excerpt from guide looking at use of the abbreviation “LGBTQIA+”

The new guide lists words and phrases that are relevant to ‘development’ INGOs, with an explanation of why we might use that word/phrase and might want to avoid other common words/phrases in the context of power. It is structured in sections that span intersecting forms of inequality: disability; physical and mental health; gender justice; sexual diversity and women’s rights; migration and the rights of refugees; and race, power and decolonisation.

The language recommended is drawn from specialist organisations which provide advice on the language preferred by marginalised people, groups and communities, and by our own staff and networks. The aim is to support us to respect the way different groups wish to be referred to.

But we are well aware of the limitations and complexities…

While we hope this resource will be useful to people working in international development, and perhaps to social justice movements more broadly, we are well aware of the limitations and complexities around this project.

First, we recognise that radical and grassroots organisations and activists in the global majority have been leading work on racial justice and decolonisation for a long time. Oxfam is learning from these movements, and is in a process of recognition of the colonial history and behaviours of the ‘international development’ sector, with a view to working towards meaningful decolonisation of our work, and a shifting of power from the global minority to the majority. In this project, we are led by the work of such specialist organisations and activists, whom we do not intend to replace or take space from, but to support, platform, and share power with in solidarity.

Excerpt suggesting alternatives to “beneficiaries”

Second, we recognise that there is a problem with the guide being all about English. We recognise that the Anglo-supremacy of the sector is part of its coloniality. This guide is supporting people who have to work and communicate in the English language as part of this colonial legacy but we also understand that the dominance of English is itself one of the key issues that must be addressed in order to decolonise our ways of working and shift power.

Third, we are conscious this is just one step in working towards Oxfam embracing an intersectional feminist and anti-racist approach to gender justice and to all of our work that addresses the erasure of the voices and stories of women, racialised groups, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ people, and others. It needs to be understood as one piece of a much broader effort to rethink and re-imagine how international development works to decolonise and shift power that includes initiatives backed by Oxfam such as the Pledge for Change.

…and know this has to be a work in progress

And of course we recognise that this guide will inevitably be imperfect, that there will be alternative views and objections about the language we recommend, and that there will be questions about all of this. We welcome these so do please take a look at the guide and tell us what you think. (Feedback can be sent to: policyandpractice@oxfam.org.uk.)

This publication is very much a work in progress, and a contribution at a particular moment to the work of decolonization and efforts to foster diversity and inclusion in INGOs. We will review and update the guide as we learn and understand more, and to keep up with the evolving work of the social justice movements that have inspired it.

Image from the new guide

Helen Wishart

Helen Wishart is Intersectional Feminist Communications Lead at Oxfam GB

Read the full Inclusive Language Guide here.
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