T.S. Eliot called it the cruelest month, but April seems to have something for everyone: for baseball fans, the season opener; for tax accountants, a nice buzz of activity at the office; for amateur meteorologists, freak snowstorms. And for the truly serious policy wonks, the semiannual meetings in Washington of the World Bank and the International Monetary fund.
In reading about this last, I ran across a term used in a number of contexts, generally having to do with development (poor countries' economies) or major improvement (poorly performing public schools): capacity building.
The United Nations Development Program has a definition of capacity building that is, as you might expect, a mouthful. It reads, in part: "the creation of an enabling environment with appropriate policy and legal frameworks, institutional development, including community participation (of women in particular), human resources development and strengthening of managerial systems."
Well. Does that make it perfectly clear?
Another way to express it might be to say that capacity building is the stuff you have to do to get to the starting line.
And while we're at it, just what is an "enabling environment," anyway? Our language of ability is often a little vague. Just what kind of capacity is meant tends to vary according to context. Blackanthem.com, an online journal of military news, recently had a report on "capacity building" needed in Afghanistan to get local builders work with the US Army Corps of Engineers.
"[The Corps] will require contractors to hire, train, and mentor local Afghan workers as a means to grow the Afghanistan national engineering capacity. Among the other items [an American official] stressed were worksite safety, adherence to the agreed upon work schedule, conformance to quality standards, and the need for open and honest communication. 'Safety was very hard,' said [one of the local contractors]. 'We had a hard time getting them to wear hard hats, boots and all – this is very good.' "
Capacity building in this sense is almost a kind of acculturation. Capacity derives from words meaning "ability to take in." In some cases the capacity that needs to be built seems to be a capacity to absorb help.
Enable is another word in the language of ability that is used in many senses simultaneously. It's typically been used with "to" constructions, enabling someone to do something.
Thus, from an online headline of the Daily Express, a Malaysian newspaper: "MAS price structure to enable M'sians to fly." This headline, on the face of it extremely optimistic, was meant to convey that new prices were intended to encourage Malaysians to see more of their own country by air.
As a psychological term, an enabler is one who makes it possible for someone to persist in self-destructive behavior.
But if my quick sweep of Google News is any indication (and I think it is) the long-established use of enable with "to" (cf the flying Malaysians) is being crowded out by the technological meaning of the word "to make (something) possible," or, in simpler terms, "to switch something on." You might say enable/disable is the new on/off.
The enabling some of us worry about is that of cookies – not the kind in the cookie jar but the kind on our computer – the kind needed to access certain websites.
Shall I enable cookies, one wonders, and risk letting online marketers find out more about me than I know myself? Or shall I disable them, and risk becoming some kind of cyberwallflower? There are many possibilities here. I'll have to build a little capacity to understand them all.
• This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.