When Juliet, standing at the window overlooking the Capulets' orchard, wondered aloud, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet", did she realise that she was articulating a strategy that was to be later used so effectively by international financial agencies.
The strategy is simplicity itself. As the pained lover of the bard's tale noted, "T'is but thy name that is my enemy; if you are uncomfortable with the name, but want to retain the essence, why, just change the name. The language of development has been repeatedly and subtly rewritten over the years to use this strategy. As a result, while countless projects of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other development funding organisations have had devastating consequences for the world's poor, for farmers, for the environment, and for tribals, clever plays on words have been used to hide their harsh realities, to downplay impacts, to subdue passions.
Take the discourse over water. For the last decade and a half, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and others have been pushing a policy of privatisation, globalisation and marketisation in the economy of water. This policy has certain necessary elements - sharp rises in water tariffs, disconnecting water supplies to those who can't afford to pay, retrenchment of staff in water utilities, and so on. Naturally, these measures - in an area as sensitive as water - have resulted in massive protests. How, then, to continue to promote these policies without stirring up opposition? The answer, of course, is language.
Thus, a World Bank development project never ever leads to increase in water tariffs. It only results in tariff 'rationalisation'. These projects do not ever require laying-off people. They only want a 'right-sizing' of public utilities. It is interesting that the rationalisation always leads to higher tariffs, but if it is that strong a correlation, why not simply call it an upward revision of tariffs? Note that the argument here is not about whether tariffs ought to be raised or not. The thing that is being pointed out is that if the aim is to raise tariffs, that is what should be said; if the aim is to retrench people, that is what should be written. But of course, such recommendations can trigger protests.
A World Bank document  reports on the sharp rise in water tariffs after privatisation in Guinea. It says, "However, after the subsidy phased out, tariffs continued to increase ... This resulted in a steep fall in connections and a corresponding rise in inactive connections." Note the language carefully, and observe the absence of any agency. The popular word-processor on my computer virtually screams at me, underlining the sentence in green in protest against the passive voice. However, the grammar minder may not realise the great value offered by this grammatical construct. How did the connections in Guinea fall? By themselves? How did the inactive connections rise? Did more and more connections become 'inactive' all by themselves, switching themselves off?
The reality is that upon privatisation, the tariffs rose sharply. Guinea was forced to take a World Bank loan to subsidise the tariffs - in other words the country incurred debt so that it could pay for a private company's profits. The tariffs rose by 650 per cent, with people in Guinea getting average water bills that were higher than those in Milan, Paris and London. As a result, about 10,000 connections, roughly a third of the total, were cut-off by the supplier due to non-payment.
When the World Commission on Dams, established in 1998, began its discussions on the impacts of large dam projects, the most important thing it was confronted with was, of course, displacement. Since the Commission itself consisted of people from all sides of the dams debate, and it had to play a fine balancing act between dam builders, movements, NGOs, international financing agencies and so on, it could have felt uncomfortable with words like 'victims' of dams, 'uprootment' and so on. Or some smart consultant may have felt that such words struck discordant notes in the air conditioned offices of the World Bank and the sanitised, 'oh-so-propah' environs of international conferences. Whatever may be the reason, a nice word, 'stakeholder', was introduced in the discussions. It referred collectively to the dam builders, dam owners, and to dam victims. For example, the Commission recommended that "all stakeholders be consulted" in the decision-making process.
This word had the wonderful effect of hiding the fact that one set of stakeholders were active players and controlled all decisions, while another set of stakeholders was at the receiving end, not only being adversely impacted, but having no say in the matter. Several people immediately reacted to this attempt. Some made it a point never to use the word 'stakeholder' in isolation. They would insist on saying "stakeholder and stakeloser". Thus, the above recommendation would become "consulting all stakeholders and stakelosers". Other activists started saying "stakeholders and victims."
Modern day activists are not the only one to challenge such tactics. In 1938, when the Congress party introduced a bill making a change in how the untouchables would be addressed (i.e. they would be called 'harijans'), Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar is said to have criticised the bill, saying that a change of name would make no difference if there was no change in their actual conditions.
Coming back to more recent times, the world is undergoing enormous transformations as policies of privatisation and globalisation are changing beyond recognition not only economies but societies and cultures. There is also huge resistance to these policies. At the core is the fight of ideas - ideas that eventually the world will be shaped according to. It is not without reason that the World Bank has identified as one of its three key strategic priorities for India, in its Country Assistance Strategy, "to substantially expand its role as a politically realistic knowledge provider and generator." Knowledge is eventually expressed in words. Words that may mean what they say, words that may hide what is so, words that may convey what is not. For those who are concerned with the development debate at its broadest, it is imperative to know whether a Rose is being called a Rose, and if not, why not.