The Swahili Word for Transparency, and the Fallacies of Linguistic Determinism

I recently attended a workshop where participants were debating, among other things, why reform initiatives to promote government transparency and other anticorruption measures in places like sub-Saharan Africa had such a (seemingly) poor track record. In the course of the conversation, a well-known tenured professor declared – as evidence for the proposition that cultural incompatibility explains much of this apparent failure – that “there isn’t even a Swahili word for ‘transparency.’”

I was flummoxed and expressed some confused skepticism, but this professor (who, by the way, is a white Englishman whose CV does not indicate that he speaks Swahili or has ever done any research in a Swahili-speaking country) insisted that this was not only true, but was strong evidence that government transparency was an alien concept in Swahili-speaking societies.

It wasn’t a terribly important part of the discussion — more of an aside — and the conversation swiftly moved on. But the assertion that this linguistic lacuna demonstrates a significant cultural gap–one with important policy implications–has been bugging me ever since, not least because it reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s absurd claim that “in the Russian language there isn’t even a word for freedom.” (There is, by the way: svoboda.) So just in case this specific claim about Swahili, or linguistic arguments like this more generally, are an emerging meme in the anticorruption commentariat, I thought it would be worth a quick post to try to nip this nonsense in the bud.

So, what’s wrong with the claim that there’s no Swahili word for transparency? Three things: Continue reading

Watch Your Language: Not “Everyone” Is Corrupt–Anywhere.

I’ve noticed something about the way many people (including me) sometimes describe the severity of the corruption problem in many parts of the world: When calling attention to the problem of widespread, systemic corruption, it’s not uncommon to hear people say—usually in casual conversation, occasionally in more formal presentations—that in this or that country, or this or that government or department, “everyone” is corrupt, or “everybody” takes bribes, or similar. I’m sure I’ve used this or similar language myself, without even thinking about it. And I understand that when most people say things like “everyone in [X] is corrupt,” they don’t mean that literally. Yet I find myself increasingly bothered by statements like this, for several reasons: Continue reading