Buzzwords Then and Now

Buzzwords Then and Now

Just when we thought we had cycled through all possible catchphrases, 2013 ushered in some new ones.

A bit of ancient history

In the 90s, buzzwords moved like molasses. On the practice side, it took a decade and a half to transition from microenterprise development to microfinance. During that time, we made the big switch from “serving beneficiaries” to “attracting clients”. Presumably, it was better to profit from the poor than to benefit them. The big book was The New World Of Microenterprise Finance (Otero and Rhyne). Photos of seamstresses smiling behind sewing machines had become the rage.

On the research side, we really did not have many catch phrases other than “participatory”. We were all about researching supply and invented some quirky (remember OSS?) concepts along the way. There were a few dull and controversial studies on clients, but they had little impact on our industry. That the Pitt and Khandker research proved impact, then didn’t, then did, left us unfazed. 

Then in 2000, we got a new buzz-phrase: “lump sum” and the big book was The Poor and Their Money (Rutherford). Never mind that the concept of a lump sum had dominated thinking on gambling for centuries, or that the idea of a lump amount has been used forever in any kind of finance. The phrase was new to us and we cherished it. No one had really written about the poor or their financial practices in such an intelligent, graceful way. We appreciated the term and were genuinely changed by what we read.

On the research side, we became all about diaries. Again, Stuart Rutherford led the way with his journals of 42 households in Bangladesh. Diaries and portfolios had become the “in” research thing.

But that was just the beginning. The buzz-factory went into high production in 2005. All of a sudden Impact Investing, Double Bottom Line, and Bottom of the Pyramid were everywhere. The big book was Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, which urged suppliers of every kind to pursue a profitable race into the economic pits – all in the spirit of Doing Well by Doing Good. Financial Inclusion quickly followed. Everyone including payday lenders could crawl into the tent of financial inclusion. Noteworthy was Compartamos, now Gentera, with its grand claim of eradicating financial exclusion while charging 100+ interest rates.

Then, mysteriously, Client-At-The-Center hove into view.  It reminded us that for decades the client had situated herself happily on the periphery, untouched by our work. 

On the research side, RCTs began playing the gold-standard trump card (note to reader: gold has not been the standard for anything for quite some time). Yes, RCTs would prove or disprove impact once and for all. The randomistas had practitioners contorting themselves in the name of rigor. And poof:  Rigor became the new buzzword. Rigorousness and Randomness gave birth to more terms of art. For instance,  “evidence suggests”, a transmogrification of “studies show”, somehow replaced “we think”. The evidence, though, did not suggest much. Practitioners of every charitable and profitable kind marched on, business as usual. A lot of books came out, too many to mention.

History lesson over 

In 2013, everywhere we turned, we heard new buzzing. First, there was Big Data. Though coined by big business a few years ago, Big Data made its way into Financial Inclusion only in the past year. But, no one knew exactly what to do with Big Data since the folks who had it – commercial entities - were not about to part with it. And the folks who did not have it – the ones who might have used it to be inclusive – had no hope of accessing it. So much for Big Data.

Next, Shared Value (Michael Porter’s attempt to spruce up CSR) plunked down next to a buzz-phrase classic – the Value Chain.And, finally, Human Centered Design made its grand entrance. Hint: if you don’t know about Human Centered Design, buy a couple of boxes of sticky notes, find a bare wall, and voilá: you too will be a human-centered designer.  

What’s in store for 2014? Stay tuned.



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Reader Comments (3)

Thanks for this, Kim. Over the weekend I read this recent piece about the value of TED talks which gave me a similar uncomfortable—and guilty—feeling.

The problem he highlights could just as well be about financial inclusion as it is about TED:

“One TED speaker said recently, ‘If you remove this boundary ... the only boundary left is our imagination’. Wrong.

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation…

More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins…

At a societal level, the bottom line is if we invest in things that make us feel good but which don't work, and don't invest in things that don't make us feel good but which may solve problems, then our fate is that it will just get harder to feel good about not solving problems.”

Mon, January 6, 2014 | Julie

Thanks, Julie.

I think sometimes we move ahead slowly and buzzwords do just that - buzz - and do help us move forward. They spread the news that's there, whether it is exciting or not or beneficial or not. But, at the core of all the buzz, there really has to be something worthwhile or we see what we do or what we write eventually as fiction. And then everyone ends up feeling hollow - a patchwork of frameworks, phrases and diagrams, divorced from how people live. As long as we keep questioning what we are doing, that's a good thing. But yes to Copernicus. Oh, and Galileo is rather nice too.

Mon, January 6, 2014 | Kim Wilson

love it! as you know, rigor and "evidence suggests" are a few of my favorite words! i do hope to contribute a few buzzwords of my own eventually. that and keeping an eye on poverty!!

thank you, kim.

dr. pem, phd

Tue, January 7, 2014 | dr. pem

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