What’s in the Name: Addressing Development Cliché Once Again

BY: Sabin Selimi , Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 30. November 2022

The way we describe people shapes how we perceive and act toward them. Sometimes it may not matter what we call someone or something. Rather the way we treat and approach someone or something is more important than the description or labeling.

Deep down, however, terms and words that are used in development seem to indicate who holds power and who doesn’t. For example, “partnership” isn’t a neutral term – it disguises complex relationships of power and inequality, often expressed through the control of one “partner” over the other.

In 2018, Ducan Green came up with some broad categories of terms used in development that need to be either banned or rethought because of their “awfulness”. Terms like “impactful” and “capacitating” seem to be distorted Shakespearean language. Those that are condescending or patronizing include “empowerment” and “capacity building”. Terms like “The South” seem to be outdated or wrong while those that try to make the speaker sound smart are “leveraging” and “business model”.

Here’re some of our picks which are the focus of our blog.

Are you as likely to involve a “beneficiary” in design and budgeting as you would a “partner”? Would you ever portray a client in exploitative imagery with tears running down their face?

Proposals outline program or project “beneficiaries”. Donors want reports on “beneficiaries” reached. We talk about “beneficiary” feedback.

The beneficiary problem

Clichés related to development and NGOs can be problematic for a number of reasons.

Somehow, those who are working in development have adopted the term “beneficiary” in development. Recently we asked our network on LinkedIn what could be an alternative or a more fitting term.

Some refer to them as “partners”. But “partners” feels a bit unclear. Others refer to the “beneficiary” as “affected communities” or “affected people”. Another said that they call the “beneficiary” based on who they are in reference to what their interventions are (e.g., if they are students, it’s the students).

We’re no terminology experts, but we’ll give it a try. To be a beneficiary implies that she or he receives something good, or bene. Descriptively, “beneficiary” partially works. In development, beneficiaries are largely disempowered. At the same time, however, it’s questionable that what they’re receiving is all that bene.

Some development organizations use the word “citizen” instead of “beneficiary”. But isn’t “citizen” largely a legal term? Sovereign states have citizens. Development organizations like Helvetas don’t.

What about refugees and undocumented migrants? It’s important to note that not all “beneficiaries” are citizens. Surely, their voices need to be heard too.

And then there are others who argue that “consumer” is the right word. Actually, no one in development has put forth “consumer” as an alternative to the word “beneficiary”. However, there’re various efforts to begin treating them like consumers in a private commercial market.

Namely, developing a practice of “beneficiary satisfaction” that would be analogous to customer satisfaction. The spirit of “beneficiary satisfaction” is there. It suggests that the “beneficiaries” in development are powerful in relation to their suppliers. But it’s problematic because, in this case, supply doesn’t feel a threat from demand, and who’s your customer after all?

But then, does this all matter?

In July 2019, Zenebe Uraguchi wrote a blog post about reasons why he appreciates being part of other countries’ development experiences. His argument is that meaningful global development cooperation in a messy world needs the recognition that solutions mainly, if not all, come from “people” within the countries that aspire to have better lives in terms of better incomes and taking up decent jobs.

Those of us working in development are brought closer to people in the countries where we stay or work. It offers us new experiences and perspectives, as well as an understanding of the contexts in which we work. A colleague of ours recently posted a comment, essentially indicating that there’s more to development solutions than simply the technical side of it. So, building a better and just world requires us to be passionate, compassionate, and above all, collaborative.

Perhaps we need to accelerate the evolution of development cooperation from the “tyranny of experts” to genuine collaborators.

An example...

RECONOMY is an inclusive and green economic development program of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), implemented by Helvetas in 12 countries in the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkan countries. Our work relies on implementing partnerships to bring about large-scale and sustainable change. Therefore, partnerships are important to our implementing model.

In this case, our local and regional partners collaborate with us at Helvetas. There is no denying that development organizations from advanced economies like in the case of Helvetas in Switzerland have been important actors. However, in a rapidly changing landscape of development, our roles are evolving into more of a knowledge broker, requiring renewed and strengthened cooperation with partners in the host countries and regions.

If we’re forced to answer what’s the alternative of “beneficiary”, we’d say it’s “stakeholder”, more specifically the “primary stakeholder”. They’re young people and women, in particular the disadvantaged and excluded, affected by our work using the inclusive systems approach through our partners. “Stakeholders” don’t receive the benefit passively. They actively and intelligently navigate and manipulate the complex ecosystem of development initiatives and organizations.

At Helvetas, we share our experiences from different countries. Considering that RECONOMY operates in two, quite large and diverse regions of Europe, we feel it’s our responsibility to tell the stories of the people we work with and share our experiences of working and exchanging with different countries. Development should be human-centered, with a genuine interest in people and their lives.

It doesn’t stop here. To achieve sustainable and scalable impacts, we must work with all stakeholders, including the disadvantaged, and excluded, as well as the private sector, civil society, and the public sector. To us, they’re all “stakeholders”.

However, also with one small change of a word, changes the way we think. The impact doesn’t end when we deliver our work. Impact begins there when the people we serve go on to lead far beyond our work. Far beyond us and usually without us. After all, aren’t we in the business of putting ourselves out of business?

If you’re a “stakeholder” of RECONOMY or any other initiative, let’s know what you want to be called. Others have thought much more about this issue, and we’d love to listen to your additional reflections on the topic. Language and meaning constantly evolve, while knowledge adapts and expands.


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Communication Manager of the RECONOMY Program
Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies