Use of language

Use of language

ALNAP’s use of language is informed by our commitment to the needs of humanitarian workers and to the needs of people who are affected by humanitarian crises. From programme delivery staff to people working at the headquarters of international agencies, we want humanitarians everywhere to find our resources useful and accessible. This means that our style of writing must be equitable, inclusive, clear and accurate.

In recent years people inside and outside the formal humanitarian system have discussed decolonisation and how it might be achieved. Many of ALNAP’s partners, members and peers have also been considering how to guard against language that reflects and reinforces damaging attitudes and assumptions. Similarly, humanitarians are having urgent conversations about how to talk about the changing climate in a way that accurately describes its impacts on humanitarian need.

We recognise the value of clearly acknowledging power dynamics in our writing, and of using language that reflects the broad consensus among humanitarians. We believe that doing this improves accuracy and broadens our potential audience, leading to better humanitarian action. This is a fast-moving area, which means that our use of language will probably change over time.

In some cases, we have chosen to use terms that may be contested. We recognise that if we use politically-loaded or contentious terms, it’s important to make intentional choices and to understand what our justification is. After considering alternatives, we may decide to use a term that is more accessible or understandable for a wider readership, or is genuinely the most accurate and appropriate term available, despite its imperfections, or debates around its use.


Underlined words are contested and should be used with care.


accountability (upwards/downwards)

‘The use of words like upwards and downwards implies a hierarchical dynamic between donors and people supported by projects.’ (from Oxfam’s Inclusive Language Guide)

ConsiderWhere possible, ALNAP prefers to use accountability to donors or accountability to people affected by crisis.


We endeavour to use ‘Africa’ or ‘Africans’ only if it is genuinely applicable to the entire, very diverse, continent. We may use regional terms such as East, West, Central, North and Southern Africa.

See also sub-Saharan Africa

aid, international/humanitarian/development aid

[From Oxfam’s Inclusive Language Guide:] ‘Aid’ implies an unequal power relationship and one which is purely altruistic and does no harm, which is not always borne out by the evidence. [But] we recognise that not using these phrases requires a substantial shift and the use of terms that may not be recognised more widely in the sector or in international affairs more generally. We will continue to look for suitable alternatives.

This term is contested, but it has the important benefit of being almost universally understood. We also use the terms: humanitarian action, humanitarian response, humanitarian financing/funding flows, humanitarian assistance, international humanitarian assistance (IHA).

We try to use the specific/official names of the relevant funds when we are not referring to the global funding environment, eg funds from the UN, multilateral funds, bilateral donor funds, development assistance funds from the UK Government.

aid recipient

We try to avoid this terminology as it is contested: it combines aid and ‘recipient’ (which implies passivity and the expectation of gratitude). Where possible, we refer to ‘people who receive humanitarian assistance’, ‘participants in [specified] programme’, ‘programme/intervention participants’, ‘participants in IHA programmes’. Where we use contentious language from past activity – as in ALNAP’s own ‘aid recipient survey’ – we will add notes to explain why we are using this language.

Similar contested terms we aim to avoid: beneficiary, disaster victims


capacity building (noun), capacity-building (modifier)

The term ‘capacity building’ has been a source of contention for some years yet remains in common parlance. It is often used as a blanket term for a range of activities related to strengthening institutions including training, provision of equipment, and development of protocols. It risks devaluing the existing local, national or community capacity and over-valuing the role of the international or donor organisation; it also reinforces the idea that the existing paradigms for resilience and recovery that pertain within the formal humanitarian sector are necessarily ‘correct’. However, existing alternatives – such as ‘capacity sharing’ – imply that the relationship is equal and mutually beneficial, which is not always accurate. ALNAP has chosen to continue to use ‘capacity building’ to reflect dominant power dynamics within the humanitarian system, whereby resources and knowledge are passed from Global North to Global South in a hierarchical, top–down way. ALNAP also uses the term where it is used in source material and we are unable to provide further clarity about the specific activities involved.

Unfortunately, there are not always good alternatives. Some alternatives we might use include: being specific about the activities we are referring to (provision of IT equipment, training, peer-to-peer exchange); ‘mutual learning’ to acknowledge the exchange of value and the capacity of locally-led initiatives; or ‘so-called capacity building’.

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climate change

The language around climate change is changing. Some argue strongly that ‘change’ is too neutral a descriptor for an anthropogenic process; it disclaims human responsibility, and thus our capacity to change or affect it. Nevertheless, ‘climate change’ remains widely understood. We may also use other alternatives including ‘climate emergency’, ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate breakdown’, but at the moment these terms are mostly used by advocacy groups.

crisis-affected communities

This formulation frontloads the crisis; it is often better to use ‘people/communities affected by crisis’, which frontloads the people/communities. Or you can use ‘programme participants’; ‘most affected people and areas (MAPA)’ (from the Oxfam Inclusive Language Guide); ‘the people we work with’ (if the writer works for a humanitarian organisation); ‘service users’; or – usually in the context of accountability, because it spells out the relationship of responsibility – ‘client’.


developing/developed countries

‘The terms “developing, developed and industrialized nations” were previously preferable to “underdeveloped” and other options.  However, in line with more recent thinking, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), created in the 1990s and targeting “developing countries”, were replaced by the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which consider all countries as needing development. It is, thus, preferable to avoid such references altogether.’ (UNHCR Style Guide) 

These terms are contested and we aim to avoid them if possible. They don’t describe a clear set of attributes, and they position some countries as better than others. Instead, we try to be specific about which countries/regions we mean, or frame the categorisation in terms of specific relevant metrics, such as GDP/GNI per head, or access to education or healthcare. For wealth, you use ‘lower/lower-middle/middle/high income countries’ according to the World Bank’s regularly updated lists, or ‘very high/high/medium/low levels of human development’ according to UNDP’s Human Development Index (which you should specifically cite to explain the somewhat unfortunate terminology). We also refer to ‘the G7 group of countries that hold around 58% of the world’s wealth’ (source; note that Russia is no longer a member of this group). If using a term that covers areas of highest humanitarian need, we use ‘most affected people and areas (MAPA)’ as an alternative.

disabled people, people with disabilities

‘A Disability is caused by society’s unwillingness to meet the needs of people with impairments.’ (Disability Rights Campaign)

We use ‘people with disabilities’, not ‘disabled people’. We also try to avoid metaphors that refer to disabilities, such as ‘blind faith’, ‘falling on deaf ears’. This guide by Leonard Cheshire has useful suggestions.


empowerment, empowering are contested terms. Unless used with great care, it can be patronising, so we try to use alternatives like: claiming power; holding [others] accountable; supporting people; exposing and removing structural barriers that prevent people from exercising power; supporting autonomy.


In the field; fieldwork (and also on the ground)

We aim to avoid this terminology and instead use ‘[working] in crisis contexts’, ‘[working] in programme delivery’, ‘[working] at a programme level’, ‘[working] in the context of programme delivery’.

frontline (staff)

For some humanitarians, ‘frontline’ carries uncomfortably martial overtones; humanitarian response is not a military operation (and, indeed, is often made much more difficult and dangerous by military activity). However, in its work on frontline learning the ALNAP research team found that there was no other term that scored as well as ‘frontline’ in terms of recognition and understanding. Using ‘frontline’ at least once in a piece of copy might well help people to understand the topic being discussed.

As ever, being specific about roles helps, such as ‘implementation/people working in implementation’; ‘humanitarians delivering or monitoring programmes in communities affected by crisis’;  ‘humanitarians responding in communities’; ‘humanitarians working at the forefront of crises’. Where it affects the meaning, we aim to be clear whether we are referring to paid staff or survivor- and community-led response (sclr, lower case).


Global South, Global North

The terms ‘Global South’ and ‘Global North’ are used as a shorthand for low-and middle-income nations and regions that were exploited through colonisation, and the wealthy countries who colonised them or benefited from colonisation. The concept of the Global North/South emerged after the end of the Cold War and has come to provide a framing for the geopolitical and economic shifts of the 21st century. The concept encompasses the rise of blocs such as the BRICS as well as the historical legacy of imperialism. Used judiciously, these terms can shed light on the ongoing disparities in wealth, access to resources, and power over international decision-making. ALNAP acknowledges ongoing debates about the usefulness of these terms, which risk being reductive and binary.

These terms are contested but they can be useful in some contexts, eg when considering the history of colonialism and exploitation and resulting economic and political impacts. They might also reasonably describe a group of countries acting as a ‘bloc’, for example in their activities within the United Nations. We avoid using these terms as synonyms for ‘rich countries’ and ‘impoverished countries’.

humanitarian sector, humanitarian system

We use ‘sector’ to mean the formal, professional international humanitarian assistance (IHA) sector, which includes the UN and other multilateral bodies, national governments, international NGOs, and national and local NGOs. The sector is characterised by paid, professional staff and a set of recognised formal standards. It is different from the humanitarian system.

We use ‘system’ to mean both the formal, professional international humanitarian sector, and other forms of humanitarian response – such as sclr, remissions, private donations, charitable giving, faith and religious groups – that are not formalised or characterised by employment relationships.



international humanitarian assistance



A lakh is a unit in the Indian numbering system equal to 100,000. It is used in Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. A crore is equal to 10,000,000, or 100 lakh. This system of measurement introduces separators into numbers in places according to a two-digit grouping, rather than the three-digit grouping common elsewhere in the world. For example, 30 million (3 crore) rupees would be written as Rs.3,00,00,000, with commas at the thousand, lakh and crore levels, instead of Rs.30,000,000.


We use ‘LGBTQ+’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and other self-identifications) as the standard umbrella term relating to sexual orientation and gender identity work. However, we try to be specific when talking about activities and programmes. We don’t use LGBTQ+ without thinking about which groups are targeted by a programme. Where possible, we aim to use the terms that individuals and groups use about themselves, and explain them where necessary. We also refer to ‘sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) work’ (Oxfam).

localisation, locally led

We use ‘localisation’ to talk about top–down efforts within the formal humanitarian system, and ‘locally led’ to describe national and/or local efforts to lead on humanitarian response. Broadly, ‘localisation’ describes a softer and less concrete power shift than locally-led action.

The terms ‘localisation’ and ‘locally led humanitarian action’ are often used interchangeably but can be seen to have different meanings. They may be used to reflect what some humanitarian professionals articulate as two different starting points to the issue of the role of local actors in humanitarian action:

Localisation is the mainstream, and more narrow, approach taken by the formal international system. It is embodied in reform efforts like the Grand Bargain – which speaks of being ‘as local as possible, as international as necessary’ and narrowly frames localisation in terms of ‘strengthening international investment and respect for the role of local actors, with the goal of reducing costs and increasing the reach of humanitarian action’ (Grand Bargain Localisation Workstream, 2021).

Locally led action is used to denote approaches where programmes are conceived, shaped and delivered closer to the affected communities; designed in accordance with local norms and needs; and which may occur with or without support from the formal international system.

Acknowledging the many different interpretations of these terms – including those that use much wider and much narrower sets of metrics – we do not attempt to offer a new definition.


manmade, manpower

We do not use this term. Instead we may use: handmade; artificial; human-made; anthropogenic. For ‘manpower’, we use ‘workforce’.


We do not use Burma as it is controversial, but we use the UNGEGN English short name. We do use ‘Burmese’ when referring to the country’s people and the language, however.


natural disasters

‘Using the word “natural” ignores the role that humans have in the disaster. It assumes that the event would happen anyway and there is little that we can do to prevent it. Shifting the blame for the disaster damage and losses to nature or to an “act of God” absolves responsibility for communities living in vulnerable conditions and locations. The word takes away the social, political, environmental and economic context from disaster stories, failing to recognise the social injustices that are present.’ (Shelterbox)

A disaster is caused by the intersection of a hazard or hazards, risk and exposure. To avoid the term natural disasters we may choose to use natural hazards; natural shocks, sudden major upheaval of nature; extreme weather events; seismic events; [persons displaced by] natural hazards or the effects of climate change.


poor, poor people

We avoid this term. Poverty is an exogenous force, not an inherent characteristic of individual people, regions or nations. We may use one of these alternatives:

People living with/in poverty

People facing poverty

People with low incomes

People living in extreme poverty

People in relative poverty

People living in situations of poverty and exclusion

People with an income of less than… (extreme poverty line in low income countries as of November 2023: $2.15 a day; extreme poverty line in lower-middle-income countries: $3.65 a day; extreme poverty line in upper-middle-income countries: $6.85 a day (World Bank measure of extreme poverty))



lower case: abbreviation for survivor- and community-led response

sub-Saharan Africa

This term is contested. It comes with a complex historical legacy, and has been associated with attempts to make racial distinctions. We may include a disclaimer if quoting international organisations, including the UN and the World Bank, who use it to refer geographically to countries south of the Sahara Desert.


third world, first world

We avoid these terms unless in direct quotes or in a discussion of the term itself.

tribal, tribes

‘Most scholars who study African states and societies agree that "tribe" promotes misleading stereotypes. The term "tribe" has no consistent meaning. It carries misleading historical and cultural assumptions. It blocks accurate views of African realities. "Tribe" promotes a myth of primitive African timelessness.’ (Learning for Justice)

We avoid using these terms. Instead we use Indigenous people (with a capital I) or the correct, specific name of the group.


(giving a) voice to

We aim to avoid this phrase and instead use the following: supporting, supporting a platform for, amplifying/elevating the voices of


vulnerability is not an inherent characteristic; it is the result of human choices. As such, we prefer ‘people in a vulnerable position’ to ‘vulnerable people’. We might also use ‘people/communities/groups disproportionately affected by…’ or ‘people who are vulnerable to X because of Y’, or ‘most affected people and areas’, or ‘people facing [socio-economic] exclusion’; ‘priority groups and communities’; ‘people exposed to risk due to the intersection of factors including age, gender, sex, sexual orientation, and disability’. As ever, we believe specificity is better: ‘women at risk of of intimate partner violence’, or ‘Syrian refugees in Lebanon’.