A common habit in the development world is to refer to people involved in development projects as “beneficiaries”. It is an old routine, likely inherited from the colonial period, during which Western colonisers took over – without asking – the responsibility to help the “poor” and “uncivilised” people of Africa, Asia and the Americas in order to set out on the glorious path toward development.
While those days are long gone, this underlying patronizing and paternalist way to help the others still resounds in today’s development world. This is not the case everywhere, and is definitely not the case at POETCom.
In a very popular TED Talk “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!”, Sustainable Development Expert Ernesto Sirolli explained this concept in few and simple words: “We western people are imperialist, colonialist missionaries, and there are only two ways we deal with people: We either patronize them, or we are paternalistic. The two words come from the Latin root “pater,” which means “father”. But they mean two different things. Paternalistic, I treat anybody from a different culture as if they were my children: I love you so much. Patronizing, I treat everybody from another culture as if they were my servants.”
The roots of the term beneficiary seem to belong to this reality. It implies a top-down approach and limited agency of the targeted people. It describes them as passive actors or recipients: they receive what development workers decide for them. Their option to question what has been given is very limited, even when it isn’t really what they want. In doing so, it reinforces unequal power relationships where the “beneficiary” is not necessarily at the centre of the development process.
POETCom does not subscribe to the biases and assumptions that the term beneficiary carries, and these biases are additionally not part of its work and values. This is why POETCom is moving away from using the term beneficiary and is exploring new terms to change this narrative, as well as to depict the people we are working with – and that are the centre of our approach – as empowered.
This approach is certainly more complex and can cost more, both in terms of time and resources. It also, however, increases the chances of success in building more context-relevant and sustainable solutions, in turn ensuring local ownership.
For some, “beneficiary” is just a word that requires no thought or debate. However, the words and terms we use help create the reality we inhabit – and some bad realities can be exacerbated by the words we choose.
If we don’t question the words we are using to describe a reality, it’s likely that we won’t question reality itself, or that we will continue to share and reinforce the wrong message.
As POETCom moves toward not using beneficiary in our everyday work, what is the alternative term that we would like to promote? We are still exploring different options, such as “primary actors” “constituents”, “partners” and “stakeholders”, but even one of these might not fully capture the definition of this segment of our work. In the end, the only right response might be people.