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Troubles with Terminology in the Field of EiE: Avoiding a Communications Crisis

by Stephanie Bengtsson, University of Newcastle, Australia

According to medical doctor and international relief expert, Gunn, “If the tower of Babel was a language disaster, disaster itself has a language” (2003, p.35). He is referring to the terminology developed and used by the many stakeholders involved in emergency response and goes on to point out the importance of a shared understanding of this terminology in order to avoid “an overlay of communicational disaster”, with the potential to worsen the crisis dramatically. Having been part of response teams for the UN and other agencies, Gunn has witnessed firsthand the effects of such a communicational disaster on planning, programming and implementation.

In recent years, we have seen the rise of an era of inter-agency and international collaboration in aid, as evidenced by the formation of the Inter-Agency Steering Committee by the UN, and indeed the establishment of INEE itself. These types of initiatives have gone to great lengths to coordinate actions of the diverse range of players involved, ultimately to improve the quality of intervention. However, to truly ensure that we avoid ineffectual (at best) and harmful (at worst) interventions, it seems not only our actions but also our terminology has to be harmonised by ensuring we develop a common lexicon as we work.

As I see it, though, troubles with terminology in the field of Education in Emergencies go beyond poor planning and implementation based on misunderstandings around concepts between key players. The following popular internet comic begins to illustrate these additional troubles:



This comic (available online here) plays with a children’s rhyme common in the English-speaking world, which teaches children the importance of not letting words hurt them as a response to emotional bullying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What this comic shows though, is that words are powerful entities: they impact the way in which people experience the world. In fact, according to Cornwall, in her work demonstrating the dangers of the continued uncritical use of buzzwords within aid: “Words make worlds” (2007, p.471). They have constitutive power. The string of buzzwords Cornwall examines includes poverty, empowerment, civil society, and even development. She illustrates how these terms become buzzwords because, as abstractions with a multitude of possible meanings, they are convenient catch-all terms. Paradoxically, however, when they acquire the status of buzzwords, debate around the multitude of meanings is shut down, as everyone begins to assume they are talking about the same thing.

The Canadian sociologist, Smith, refers to this process as “a method of blob-ontology” where every time a term is used “there is assumed to be a something out there of which we can speak without worrying about how it exists” (2001, p.166). Ontology is the questioning of the nature of how things came into existence, so, for Smith, when a term is used (particularly by experts), assumptions are made that there must be a corresponding ‘thing’ that is being described by this word and ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about the use of this term go unanswered (or often unasked!) This view of language is often referred to as a referential view, and stands in contrast with the constitutive view of language, which emphasises the world-making power of words.

To close, I give examples of the twofold dangers of the uncritical use of terminology in aid from an area I have researched extensively, discourse around fragile states:

1) Gunn’s communicational disaster overlay: The term “fragile states” has become a buzzword in recent years and the aid sphere has seen a hive of activity emerge around this concept (Bengtsson, 2011). While many agencies use similar language to define it in their policies, it seems their understandings of the concept are anything but shared: In fact, estimates of the percentage of the world’s population living in fragile states ranges from 14 percent (DFID) to 30 percent (USAID), a difference of nearly one billion people (Kirk, 2007). This would perhaps not be a problem if these agencies worked in isolation, however, DFID and USAID often collaborate. The benefits of having more stakeholders on the scene trying to work together risk being outweighed by problems arising from agencies thinking they are talking about more or less the same thing, when in fact they have different things in mind.

2) The world-making power of words: The President of Burundi, a vocal critic of fragility terminology, once said, “We heard the terminology around ‘fragile states’. We wish to underline the importance of being cautious in using this term. It is labelling countries in a negative way, where we are trying to develop and become stronger and prouder nations” (Nkurunziza, 2008). He demonstrates how negative labels have the power to act as obstacles for a country’s positive future. The way I often explain what he means to my students is by asking them if they would be interested in holidaying in or doing business or in any other way acting on equal terms with a country labelled fragile by an international authority (such as the World Bank) or news media (such as the BBC) and the answer is a resounding no. We then discuss how that very process of labelling has served to create a fragile state by blocking possibilities for positive economic growth etc.

In my own world, I have taken to using the qualifier “so-called” whenever I refer to what I view as problematic terms (such as ‘developing world’ or ‘fragile state’) because it has listeners wondering why I do so, and perhaps has them consider that these terms are contested and should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. If words do have the power to make worlds (and I believe they do), then I would like to contribute to a more equal one, and not be complicit in the creation of an unequal one.


Bengtsson, S. (2011). Fragile States, Fragile Concepts: A Critical Reflection on the Terminology of Fragility in the Field of Education in Emergencies. In J. Paulson(ed.), Education, Conflict & Development. Oxford Studies in Comparative Education. Oxford: Symposium Press.

Cornwall, A. (2007). Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse. Development in Practice, 17 (4-5): pp.471-484. Available from:

Gunn, S. (2003). The language of disasters: A brief terminology of disaster management and humanitarian action. In K.M Cahill, (Ed.) Basics of international humanitarian missions. New York: Fordham University Press & The Centre for International Health and Cooperation

Kirk, J. (2007). Education and fragile states. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 5(2): 181-200.

Nkurunziza, P. (2008). Address by His Excellency the President of Burundi, Mr Pierre Nkurunziza, in Doha, Qatar.

Smith, D. E. (2001). Texts and the ontology of organisations and institutions. Cultures, Organisations, and Societies, 7 (2): pp.159-198.


Stephanie Bengtsson is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle in Australia. She holds a Doctorate in International Educational Development from Teachers College, Columbia University, an MPhil in Inclusive Education from the University of Cambridge, and a Bachelor of Arts (cum laude) in English Literature from Harvard. A Swedish citizen, born in Germany, and raised in Zimbabwe, with degrees from institutions in the US and the UK, she naturally has an interest in all things international, but particularly humanitarian assistance, development and fragility, understanding educational discourse, the Education for All (EFA) agenda and inclusive education in Sub-Saharan Africa. She considers herself “academic practitioner” (a term used by comparativist David Wilson to describe those active in the fields of comparative and international education): in addition to her academic work, she has been involved in several projects with UNICEF and INEE. Learn more about Stephanie Bengtsson here.


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