Business and investment everywhere seem peculiarly cursed with buzz-words and ambiguous or even meaningless jargon. We “downsize” rather than shrink and experience “negative growth in the equity index” rather than “a fall in the stock market”. These euphemistic terms are sometimes designed to obscure the negative meaning of a statement. But what about the reverse? What about positive statements like “enhancing empowerment, transparency and integrity”? Are we sure we understand what these terms mean?
This is particularly relevant for Egypt because the new economic team is committed to these ideals. It is committed to bringing the proceeds and benefits of economic growth to a wider group of people and to distributing of the fruits of the economy in a more sustainable and equitable way. On first glance this seems wonderful. Who, after all, can possibly disagree with the idea of sharing the benefits of growth, enhancing economic empowerment and so on? Nobody could, rationally, argue that Egypt’s wealth distribution should become less equitable. They might argue that equitable distribution is difficult to achieve, but not that it is a wrong goal. It’s the same with empowerment, transparency, integrity, social welfare increases and more. We all agree with these goals in principle. But what, exactly, do these words mean in an economic context, can what they signify be measured meaningfully and, perhaps most importantly, will people notice the difference?
Let’s briefly focus on empowerment as an example: in economic development theory, empowerment focuses on mobilising the poor to help themselves to become part of the economy, rather than providing them with welfare hand-outs. Economic empowerment also refers to the formal economic inclusion of previously disadvantaged sections of the population, this being the more frequent definition in nations such as South Africa. Both sound good. But if we ask the question, “what does empowerment mean in practice and how can we tell if it is working?” then we immediately enter what Wikipedia calls “a vast landscape of meanings, interpretations, definitions and disciplines ranging from psychology and philosophy to the highly commercialised self-help industry and motivational sciences,” which is the line which opens its entry on empowerment.
The clear practical definition of these terms is crucial to the successful implementation of policy and to the communication of that policy’s successes or failures to the expectant people of Egypt. The policy-makers and academics working on the new economic strategy of Egypt must be clear about what they mean. If they are not, and use jargon and buzz-words to obscure either a lack of policy or a contrary policy direction then they will not succeed for long in fooling the people. Disappointment and dashed hopes beckon and with them a return to economic stagnation.
General manager of Euromoney conferences, Middle East