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Please Stop Using the Term “Beneficiaries” in ICT4D

By Wayan Vota on October 23, 2013


We do it every day. We refer to the people we are working with as “beneficiaries”. For years, I used this term as well, but I’ve stopped. I’d like you to stop too.

The definition of the term “beneficiary” means a person who derives advantage from something, usually a will, trust or other financial instrument. The implication is that this recipient is a passive recipient of largess. And somehow, we have adopted this term in development. That the people we are working with should be passive recipients of our financial gifts.

Would you use “passive financial recipients” in talking about development? Then stop using “beneficiaries”.

In technology solution design, it is a standard business practice to work with the clients and customers. In international development we are (or should be) working with people to find ways to accelerate social and economic development. So the term “beneficiaries” should never be used.

If not “beneficiaries”, then what?

When I’ve asked my peers to stop using the term “beneficiaries”, the first question I’m asked is, “Then what term should we use?” I don’t have a perfect answer to the question. I like the term “constituents”, as it can refer to many types of people. “Citizens” feels too constrained as not everyone is a citizen. “Partners” feels too vague and “clients” implies a financial exchange.

But I am not the language expert. There has to be a better term than “beneficiaries”. What’s yours?

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Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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15 Comments to “Please Stop Using the Term “Beneficiaries” in ICT4D”

  1. Roxana Bassi says:

    I spanish we use “destinatarios”. The english equivalent is roughly recipient. does this also sound passive?

  2. Isabelle Amazon says:

    Seeing as we are taking this from an ICT angle – why not go with the term ‘user’? It is active rather than passive, and it reflects the emphasis on UX which should be central to all ICT4 dev work…

  3. Always a tricky issue. We tend to use ‘stakeholders’…..

    • Benita Rowe says:

      We usually opt for ‘stakeholders’ as well…’partners’ if it involves twinning and ‘clients’ if it invloves direct acquisition.

  4. When you are talking about end users, there is not a single term. When I work at the International Finance Corporation, I work with customers or, collectively, the private sector, to design ICT-enabled mechanisms to help improve the delivery of government-to-business (G2B) services; in the health sector, since the 1990s, people receiving services have been called clients, which implies a more intimate relationship than the more transactional one for G2B services. When I worked with USAID in education, there are students, parents, teachers, and policymakers. In ag, I’d call them farmers, or farmer coops. Constituents might work for participatory democracy projects, but I don’t see any relevance beyond that.

  5. Here at InterMedia, as a research organization active in financial inclusion this is a very relevant issue! Now that we are rolling our our Financial Inclusion Insights program (www.finclusion.org), we are focusing on the term “user” – and in more general terms, the “demand side.” I know that “user” can sound a bit mechanical, especially in the internet era, but it is also the most neutral term. As Wayan mentioned, “beneficiary” is a loaded term, while “customer” or “client” also has a very business-y implication for many readers. But we are open to other ideas!

  6. Rosemary Mutunkei says:

    Interesting to note this very discussion / debate is taking place among my colleagues. Terms like “Primary actors ” or ” key actors/ partners ” came up as alternative to – beneficiaries .

  7. Wayan Vota says:

    When talking with Linda Raftree about this post, she made a great point. If all we do is change the terms we use, without changing the underlying process, we will be substituting one euphemism for another and two years from now, we’ll want to ban the use of that “new” term.

    • Courtney Roberts says:

      @wayan, what Linda says makes sense and reinforces the perspective that terminology is dependent on the focus of the activity/program/product. Just like the ICT, the terminology does not need to be “one size fits all.”

  8. Jindra Cekan says:

    Many of us use ‘participants’ as they are willingly participating in the projects, bless them :). And yes, Linda’s blog is wonderful, Wayan… as is your lovely series.

  9. I’m with Linda: the problem is not that the term is too passive, the problem is that the supposed beneficiaries of aid have little or no say in the matter. And that won’t change if we call them something else.

    • Jindra cekan says:

      Excellent piunt, yet any small change in orientation is welcome ;). Do you know Mary Andreson’s fabulous Listening Project (6000 participant voices)? I wrote a blog on sustainability- Plan Int’l is tracking via ex-post evaluation and participants want more input to planning an ownership (no surpise but good proof and bravo Plan) http://www.whatcouldweknow.blogspot.com

  10. Leana says:

    I’m glad that this was brought up with Linda, because it’s essentially what I was going to comment. Changing language is important, but it doesn’t get very far if we don’t change the underlyng mentality. I think many organizations have yet to embrace truly participative and multi-stakeholder development models. In some of the places I have worked, terms like “user,” “participant,” or “clients” have been used, but without changing the attitude that the organization has towards “those people.” I believe that starting to have conversations about this term, as well as several others that are also problematic, will help lead us down the road to revolutionizing how we think.

  11. Pamela McLean says:

    I agree with Wayan. (and have blogged in response to his post here – http://dadamac.net/blog/20131102/response-please-stop-using-term-beneficiaries-ict4d )

    I loathe the word “beneficiaries”. When I was first drawn into the world of “development” I was shocked to discover the number of projects that bring in “solutions” to “beneficiaries” without the initiators first having had the humility to find out what the questions and relevant issues really are. I agree with everyone who has highlighted the need for attitude change, not just a change of vocabulary.