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In ICT4D Beneficiaries vs. Constituents, What About Client-Driven Development?

By Josh Woodard on April 28, 2014

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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.

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Written by
Josh Woodard is the co-founder of Civi, a civictech platform connecting people across the aisle, as well as a senior digital advisor at USAID. You can find more of his writings on his personal site and occasionally via his LinkedIn feed
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5 Comments to “In ICT4D Beneficiaries vs. Constituents, What About Client-Driven Development?”

  1. Jindra Cekan says:

    They are our clients… too often we see our donors as our clients and forget the end-user.
    I also enjoy watching NGOs nice reaction when we call them ‘project participants’ rather than passive ‘beneficiaries’.
    Semantics do matter… Thanks, Jindra

  2. I work in an international development charity called INASP and we tend to use the word “partner” a lot, as a verb and noun. I think I’ve also come across “stakeholder”.

  3. Glen Burnett says:

    I’ve put a lot of thought into this myself, as someone who has both worked in the private sector and in development.

    In cases where an organization cann confuse the word client to mean “USAID” or “DFID”, you will never be able to call your users “clients”. It is a basic marketing issue. Plus, you are actually dealing with a Business to business model, where, for example, FHI 360’s client may be USAID, and USAID’s customers may be the extreme poor, but, like any other B2B, the terminoology usually works better when you separate terms.

    I advocate for the use of “customer” because I like the idea of what customer service, or a customer driven organization might look like at a place like USAID.
    Customer experience design is also an added value. This is where you move beyond just doing stakeholder outreach and persona development (stakeholders, incidentally, usually do not include end users–look at the CDCS for example) but you actually consider how a project should be designed for maximum uptake by a “customer”, while minimizing churn.

    Most people who don’t like a “customer” approach warn against bringing too much private sector into development. This is very different though, becuase it is not a focus on the private sector itself, but rather how the private sector thinks about who it needs to appease and be accountable to. Anyone who has gotten funding from a major donor knows that the true customer of a donor is Congress, Finance ministers, etc., as a company ulitmately is responsible to its shareholders. But just as many of those companies have successfully educated their shareholders on the value of the customer, development practitioners also need to do the same for our donors…

  4. Josh Woodard says:

    @Glen – I think the use of “customer” works as well. You are right that in the true sense of the word, that customer is more appropriate than client in the case of development. To me, proposing client was more about reclaiming and redirecting the actions that are undertaken in association with using the word to represent the donor. Perhaps a better way of looking at it though is that donors are the investors, and the individuals we work with are our customers.

  5. Steve Sena says:

    How about “stakeholder”?