Back in October, Wayan challenged us to please stop using the term “beneficiaries” in development conversations, replacing it with “constituents” instead. I like the idea of moving away from beneficiary, but to me constituent doesn’t quite work.
In the true sense of the word, constituents hold the power and nominate people to represent them or act on their behalf. The reality in development, however, is that the individuals we work with almost never make the choice to have us represent them. Those decisions are generally made far away by donors in the capital city or another country. They are our constituents in the same way that individual citizens are constituents of a Politburo—in name only.
What about “client”?
My proposed alternative is a word that is generally used with quite the opposite intent: the word ‘client’. Perhaps no sentence bothers me more in development than “What does our client want?” It has become the “What would Jesus do?” question of development, and something that a lot of practitioners base all of their decisions around.
Of course, when this is asked it is not in reference to the individuals and communities we work with, but rather in reference to what we think our donor wants. What if we turned that on its head though? What if every decision we made in development was really based on what the communities we work with (our real clients) want?
Not the donor as the client
This is not a new concept. Participatory approaches to development have been around for decades, and these days everywhere is abuzz with user-centered design. Excitement about these types of approaches is great, but I would argue that by thinking of our donors as our clients that it is actually impossible to employ a truly user-centered approach. It is only through changing the orientation of who we collectively view ourselves as serving that we can do this.
That’s the semantic side of my pitch, but why stop at just semantics? What if we took that even further and donors began to rethink how they reward development practitioners for their work? Rather than have us compete against each other during the typical proposal process—where winners are chosen not by communities but by donor staff—I would like to see donors experiment with awarding multiple organizations with seed (or core) funding for the same project. Those funds would be just enough for them to set up their basic operations and develop relevant service offerings.
Real client-driven development
At the same time, individuals in targeted communities would be given vouchers to purchase services from those competing organizations. Organizations would be responsible for pricing their services, and individuals would decide which of those services to spend their voucher pool on. Each organization would then be reimbursed only for the value of the vouchers received for their services.
There would need to be some ground rules established, of course, such as those dealing with truthful advertising of services, ensuring that services were not being offered below cost to undercut the competition, and so on. Once those are set, however, such an approach to development would enable us all to see what services people actually value and want. And when we asked ourselves what our clients want, we would really mean the individuals in the communities we are in the business of working with and serving. Otherwise we’d be out of business pretty quickly.
Josh Woodard is a technical manager at FHI 360. This post was written in his personal time and does not in any way reflect the opinions or views of his employer.