The only conversations I have had without resorting to clichés were perhaps with my parents and siblings, and in childhood. Ever since I started imbibing influences of school education, and participated in street gossip, clichés became like running shoes: every time you go out for a run, you must wear them.
Several years into my practical life, while watching the speech of the then President Leghari, I felt something very familiar yet banal about his justifying the dismissal of Benazir Bhutto’s government. His speech perhaps echoed all what Ghulam Ishaque Khan had muttered two times a few years ago, and earlier what Gen Zia had also said twice, in July 1977 and May 1987.
My mind had probably started discerning clichés. That was good news perhaps. But suddenly I realised that clichés were probably as omnipresent as the mention of Insha’Allah in conversations of the even not-so-pious Muslims. That wasn’t such a good news.
At the start of the new millennium, when I joined an international development charity after spending over a decade in civil service, I confronted an unfriendly volley of new jargon. It took me a few weeks to adjust and acclimatise, and another couple of months to mesh them in my work related conversation. Several months into this job, during a community meeting with the elderly ‘poor’ in Bahawalnagar, when we were asked what did we actually mean in our presentation, I realised we were a windbag of clichés.
That evening, I wondered how the once original expressions had become standard jargons of a discipline; how with mindless overuse, the once useful and well-meaning jargons had become clichés; and how clichés become devoid of feelings and emotions and intentions over time.
In the last 25 years in Pakistan, development clichés have only been second to political and security related clichés, both in use and the harm they caused to the causes they stood for.
Development sector jargons and clichés, like those in politics and literature, can be derided and disparaged but they are here to stay. So, one way to deal with them is to point them out, get amused by them and highlight the way they make a mockery of the users and the causes their users are trying to promote, nudge them for thinking of new jargon, refreshing phrases, and candid expressions.
One funny thing I have noticed in the use of clichés is the multiple meanings they generate in the minds of an audience. Notwithstanding their facile utility in written and impromptu speeches of non-thinking and imbecile high profile users, they are source of great entertainment also.
I share a selection from leading clichés which have ruled the roost in the development talk of Pakistan’s government and non-government spheres in the last two decades.
Good governance perhaps is the funniest of them all. The ‘good’ in this phrase means different things to different people in an audience. When this jargon was first used, it denoted working of a government that is responsive to the expressed needs and aspirations of the constituents, where a given government’s institutions and their actions are accountable: which, in essence, implies a functioning democracy.
In Pakistan, this phrase became a cliché from a jargon under General Musharraf’s non-democratic regime. It was during his years that the avowed bilateral and multilateral champions of democracy and ‘good governance’ like UKAid, USAID, UNDP, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank invested heavy amounts of grants and loans in promoting ‘good governance’.
Now, as I hear ‘good governance’ from Nawaz Sharif or Shahbaz Sharif, or for that matter from the leading lights of the PPP government, the good here sounds exactly like the good in ‘good Taliban’. Their goodness is not only killing but also contained in the cliché.
Also read: Spare the cliches
Similarly, the “access to justice” phrase deteriorated from a jargon to a cliché when despite spending over US$300 million loan money, the backlog in three tiers of the district, high and supreme courts multiplied to several thousands. Coincidentally, as access to justice talk was at its peak, a popular Punjabi joke was making the rounds which advised that ‘to win a case, don’t look for a competent lawyer, get the right judge’.
When I was working with the government, and I am not making this up, a deputy chief of the planning commission said, ‘poverty elevation is our top priority’! Poverty reduction and poverty alleviation are the clichés which were used during the Shaukat Aziz’ data-fudging spree, which was incidentally challenged by eminent economists. There is a joke in the capital that several NGOs who worked on poverty in the last two decades have become immensely rich.
A think tank is one of my favourite punching bags for using clichés. Originally, this phrase came from US military’ strategic talk and implied some men in uniform contemplate non-combative options to tackle an enemy. But soon it occurred that tanks can’t think and the conclusion of all contemplation was resorting to cannons. That is why the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Syrian adventure, and the ISIS mess have resulted from the best works of topnotch global thinks tanks.
My suggestion to friends who are managing and leading civil society ‘think tanks’ in Pakistan is to drop either of the two words while referring to their organisations’ otherwise critically useful work.
Roadmap is relatively new jargon. But its simultaneous over-use in the security, politics and development spheres in the last 10 years has graduated it to a cliché. Most people use it without a sense of journey, let alone of a destination.
Community participation and stakeholders consultation are two sister clichés that conceal more than they reveal, and, in a way, distort the essence of both phrases.
In practice, who gets consulted on what and who gets to participate in which manner are mostly the opposite of the spirit of these once useful phrases. Several years ago a study that analysed WB’s ‘consultations’ on its poverty reduction strategies, concluded that most of the consultations ended up endorsing the initial drafts.
There can be hugely entertaining glossary of development clichés as the list is too long.
Clichés used by the powerful, in my view, hide the bridges between proclaimed compassion of the saviours with sustained exploitation of those who need to be saved. Clichés offer an embrace which repels, instead of bringing the parties closer: much like a playful hug of a stronger adult that in very unfriendly manner squeezes and suffocates the weaker party.