decoding NGO-speak

As I was putting together my Hiphop for a Cause review on Monday, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was, despite my best efforts and enthusiastic use of words like “brilliant” and “cool,” a bit…dreary. Limp. Uninspiring, even.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to my complete lack of meaningful knowledge concerning hiphop, breakdancing and the art of writing about such things, but I don’t think it’s all my fault. Take, for example, this paragraph:

Breakdance Project Uganda was founded by Ugandan hiphop artist Abramz several years ago to empower street kids, formerly abducted child soldiers and other disadvantaged children throughout Uganda using hiphop and breakdance. BPU offers free breakdancing classes to these children, giving them a positive means of expressing themselves and encouraging them to become future BPU teachers.

I’d wager a fistful of shillings that 98% of all developing-nation NGO mission statements sound vaguely similar. Replace “disadvantaged children” with “widows” or “the unemployed” and “hiphop” with “well-digging” or “brownie-baking,” and you have what is meant to be a rousing, passionate declaration of How To Change Lives. But what does it mean? Empower them to do what? Express what, exactly? For a statement that’s supposed to save the world, it’s pretty bland.

I propose we get rid of the vapid euphemisms and talk about what these NGOs really do. Striving to give people “something constructive” to do means attempting to distract them from destructive alternatives — violence, drugs, prostitution, lethargy. Providing “outlets for expression” means letting them blow off anger, frustration, sadness or sheer boredom without robbing, assaulting or seducing the next person they see.

Bowing to a politically correct notion of what they Can and Cannot say neutralizes the immense value of these organizations. I understand that labeling their clients as potential bullies, welfare cases or criminals may come off as patronizing and imperialistic, which isn’t great for business. At the same time, they wouldn’t exist in a perfect world, and shrowding their goals in drab, dispassionate NGO-speak makes them seem like nothing more than part of the nonprofit bandwagon, with a clip-art logo and a cookie-cutter mission statement. There has to be a better way.

I’m not talking about late-night television appeals to lift child mothers out of poverty with only 10 cents a day or histrionic threats that a teenage gang will take over the inner city unless someone donates a new arts center. I’m talking about stripping off a little of the sugarcoating, employing a little more precision in their vocabulary, revealing a little of the rawness that exists in their spheres of influence without giving in to a showy, maudlin kind of despair.

Breakdance Project Uganda teaches street kids how to breakdance so they have a way to prove their social superiority that doesn’t include beating the shit out of each other. To their credit, this is basically how they introduced the first breakdance battle on Sunday: “these kids used to fight, but now they dance.”

I should have just said that.

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