[sen-si-tuh-zey-shuh n]


  1. The state or process of being sensitized.
  2. The process of becoming susceptible to a given stimulus that previously had no effect or significance.

At least two times per school term the teachers from the elementary school I worked at in The Gambia would rally themselves for a “sensitization scheme”. A “sensitization scheme” consisted of the teachers walking from compound to compound in the neighboring villages and greeting parents accompanied by some vague enquiries about whether the children of the compound were going to school. I remember asking one of the teachers the purpose of the sensitization scheme and his tautological reply was that it was to sensitize the community. He also pointed out the added bonus that they might get a parent to donate a chicken for the teachers’ lunch bowl, but he couldn’t, nor could I, give a clear definition of the meaning of sensitize.

By using the word sensitization it privileged the word over the action. I am not questioning the use of complexity in language, but I often feel that buzzwords, such as sensitization, whilst having the intention to capture the complexity of how to bring about change, often distract from the purpose of action. I am doubtful that the buzzword of sensitization provided a boost and sustained the conviction of the teachers in their action that a “talk to the community” or “educate parents” scheme would not have been able to provide.

Cornwall and Brock (2005) have written on this topic in their paper What do Buzzwords do for Development Policy? A critical look at “Poverty Reduction”, “Participation” and “Empowerment” and reading it made me consider whether I have the faculties to critically analyze the topic of buzzwords as I live a life so couched in buzzwords that I may not be the able to see the wood for the trees. Every time someone asks what I am studying at Berkeley I have to give some explanation of development, which makes me consider whether development is itself a buzzword. Is the word development a method of exclusion or is this explanatory process a way of making development more inclusive? Does development have to become part of the common lexicon before it can be inclusive? Will we look back at the word ‘development’ in fifty years time and consider it bizarre that we had to explain its meaning to so many, or will we look back at it, as we look back at “civilizing” or “third world”, as a paternalistic relic of the past? We may have the chains of equivalence of development practice hanging around our necks but we must make sure we are not learning the new and old vocabularies of the model of development just to “reinforce status and widen the gap between expert and novice” and be wary that our use of buzzwords is not merely technocratic but transformative.

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