Friday, 27 March 2015

Innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground

It's not very rare to read an article bemoaning the inexorable rise of ugly, opaque managerialist jargon. It's far rarer to come across an attempt to analyse and quantify this process, so kudos to Franco Moretti and Dominique Pestre for their quantitative linguistic analysis of World Bank reports.

It might sound like dry stuff, but this pairing of two extracts from reports published fifty years apart shows how dramatically the managerialist house style has moved away from imparting concrete information:
Here is how the Bank’s Report described the world in 1958:
The Congo’s present transport system is geared mainly to the export trade, and is based on river navigation and on railroads which lead from river ports into regions producing minerals and agricultural commodities. Most of the roads radiate short distances from cities, providing farm-to-market communications. In recent years road traffic has increased rapidly with the growth of the internal market and the improvement of farming methods.
And here is the Report from half a century later, in 2008:
Levelling the playing field on global issues
Countries in the region are emerging as key players on issues of global concern, and the Bank’s role has been to support their efforts by partnering through innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground, as well as by supporting South–South cooperation.
It’s almost another language, in both semantics and grammar. The key discontinuity, as we shall see, falls mostly between the first three decades and the last two, the turn of the 1990s, when the style of the Reports becomes much more codified, self-referential and detached from everyday language. 
'Codified, self-referential and detached from everyday language', is how academics might describe the 2008 report. 'What does that even mean?' is what a non-academic might say.

Moretti and Pestre put quite a bit of meat on the bones in Bankspeak: The Language of World Bank Reports, in The New Left Review.