'Beneficiaries'? Actually, not!

People who receive lifesaving and development assistance are termed as 'beneficiaries'. Is this correct? No.

A child carries his belongings as Syrian refugees arrive at the Turkish border, February 2016 (Photograph by CNN)

The humanitarian and development sector uses the term ‘beneficiary’ or ‘beneficiaries’ to categorise people who receive aid and assistance following a disaster or those who live in marginal circumstances of poverty and deprivation. This aid and assistance is made possible through the provision of financial support by countries that belong to the Organisation for Economic and Development Cooperation (OECD) and specific mechanisms in response to disasters and other humanitarian crises. Sources of this financial support are ultimately tax payers. A significant portion of financial support is also provided by foundations, charitable trusts, philanthropy, corporate social funds, and public giving.

Collectively these arrangements and institutions that support them are commonly referred to as ‘the aid industry’. These institutions include the OECD, national governments, the UN system, international and national non-profits, faith-based organisations, private sector contractors, suppliers of goods and services, consultant firms and many other actors. There is also a perception that ‘beneficiaries’ are people from ‘third world countries’ or under the World Bank categorisation, ‘low income’ countries where most people live below the ‘poverty line’. These are people who survive on less than US$ 1.90 per day.

Within the ‘aid industry’ there is a sincerity, a sense of volunteerism, commitment, and recognition that most of the work they do requires some form of self-sacrifice and a passion to contribute towards the ‘global good’. Within the non-profits, this is mostly true, characterised by measurement of impact in improving the lives of people for the better. There are numerous examples and case studies to support these claims.

Several international non-profits are facing dilemmas related to their roles and relevance in the future. They are exploring the concept of ‘localisation’ of humanitarian and development assistance seeking to transfer ownership to countries, their institutions, and citizens. Several countries have been successful in ensuring that greater numbers of people are ‘lifted’ out of poverty through local action by their institutions and working more effectively with civil society. If you look at the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) report a green triangle () against a country ranking means improvement. Other challenges for international non-profits are related to cost effectiveness, ‘value for money’ and how they position themselves as best able to meet these criteria.

Within the contracting industry and the private sector who bid through ‘tenders’ for delivery of contractual obligations and quantifiable outputs on behalf of OECD aid institutions this is questionable. There has been an increasing pressure from taxpayers and media for greater transparency and accountability on how ‘aid’ is provided through cost-effective practices. Recent developments have brought these issues under scrutiny with adverse consequences which include an increasing mistrust by the public of both for profit and non-profit institutions.

What are the characteristics of ‘beneficiaries’? The perception among many are they are poor in need of 'help' through charitable or philanthropic giving and are made up of communities, households and people who have been adversely affected by their circumstances. These can be the aftermath of disasters, conflict affected environments or countries where people live at constant risk to their lives in, exclusion of people from GDP and development growth of their countries depriving them of economic and other forms of opportunity and citizens of repressive regimes where dissent is not tolerated. There are also people who are not enumerated through census data and therefore effectively stateless, people who are marginalised due to their identity defined by religion, caste, sexual orientation, gender, political affiliation, and a myriad of other factors.

The consistent factor or ‘cross cutting’ theme that unifies all of these people is their inability to realise their basic human rights and entitlements, as described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) through the 30 ‘articles’. The 30 articles of the UDHR establish the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of all people. It is a vision for human dignity that transcends political boundaries and authority, committing governments to uphold the fundamental rights of each person.

The visual above is my attempt to highlight the ‘rights gap’ which represents the disconnect between the primary ‘duty bearer’, the national government and the ‘rights holder’, the citizen. The greater the disconnect and the gap, the less people can claim or realise their rights and entitlements. The UN HDI Ranking is indicative of this. The lesser the HDI ranking the greater the interaction between ‘duty bearers and ‘rights holders’. In the 2015 rankings for HDI, Norway ranked 1 and Niger 188 out of 188 countries. In Norway ‘rights holders’ are better able to transact their claims to rights and entitlements more directly with the ‘duty bearers’.

The term 'beneficiary' indicates that there is a 'benefactor' or 'benefactors' who are providing benefits. The realisation of rights which are inalienable and inherent is not a 'benefit' or 'benefits' but entitlements due to every person by virtue of his or her birth. Humanitarian and development non-profits who have adopted a ‘rights based approach’ to their work attempt to create conditions in various situations and contexts (humanitarian, inequality, marginalisation, discrimination etc.) for the realisation of rights by the people whom they seek to assist.

The conditions that non-profits attempt to promote and influence are those where people who are dis-empowered due to their circumstances can 'realise' their rights within their situation or contexts as best able. These are rights that range from the right to life and security to basic needs such as clean water and sanitation, the right to food, the right to participate, the right to dissent, the right to mobility, the right to shelter and special rights for women and other disadvantaged groups. Rights and entitlements are not benefits. ‘Beneficiaries’ are not victims who deserve benefits but are rights-holders who have their ability to claim their rights that have been taken away from them or not fulfilled (in most cases by the duty bearers, the government and their institutions) or due to circumstances such as disasters, humanitarian crises and conflict.

Interestingly in the ‘first world’ people who receive assistance following disasters are ‘disaster survivors’ and not ‘beneficiaries’. Those who have been marginalised and discriminated against and are supported by advocacy, campaign and lobbying groups are not ‘beneficiaries’ but people who cannot exercise their rights to the fullest extent. Those who are poor and assisted through welfare schemes and safety nets are not ‘beneficiaries’ but people who are unable to claim their entitlements or who do not have access to economic opportunity.

Bossier City, Shreveport, LA : FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance Team (DSAT) members provide disaster information to flood survivor. (Photo: www.fema.gov)[/caption]

So then, who are ‘beneficiaries’? The ‘aid industry’ receives money from the OECD (from taxes) committed as a percentage of the GDP allocated to overseas aid, foundations, trusts and the public. These may be bi-lateral, multi-lateral or conditional grants, or through budget support directly to governments. Contractors deliver against ‘contractual obligations’ in delivering outputs, usually replacing, or substituting for a government’s responsibility for the delivery of basic services. Non-profits who adopt a ‘rights based approach’ support work where 'pathways' (strategies) are identified and strengthened so that rights realisation becomes more possible to those who are disenfranchised. There is an increasing trend and an expectation that when assistance schemes are formulated, there needs be an increased level of consultation, participation, consensus, and joint decision-making with the people who will receive the assistance. This contributes to improved transparency and more accountable governance and ownership of decisions.

The actual 'beneficiary' is the ‘aid industry’ itself, and those who work within it, participate in and service it.

Beneficiaries include employees and the ministries that work for the OECD aid institutions and ministries. They include the UN System, the International and National non-profits, the agencies of consultants and experts who proliferate around and within the industry and on occasion exploit it. To be fair, most of the consultants with whom I have worked or commissioned have felt that they can make a better contribution and positive differences to causes that they are passionate about rather than be employed by institutions.

Negotiated overheads with ‘donors’ help pay for offices, programme implementation and programme support employees, the suppliers, the contractors, the hotels and conference centres where consultation, decision-making, training or information sharing events take place. They include the airlines that aid employees travel in, the companies from which state of the art equipment, vehicles and technology are purchased from, and service providers and middle men through whom much of administrative work is outsourced. Every agency from the OECD ministries, the UN system through to the smallest non-governmental organisations benefit socially, financially, and materially. Organisational budgets spike when there is a humanitarian crisis and those who provide 'assistance' benefit while those who are affected realise their right to life, security, protection, access to basic needs and recovery assistance to the extent possible till they can begin claiming their rights back.

I am also a beneficiary as I too work within the 'system'.

What is the solution? Till poverty, deprivation, marginalisation and the denial of rights exist the ‘aid industry’ will have a crucial role to play. Till people can anticipate, manage, mitigate, and overcome the effect of disasters there will be a need for ‘response surge capabilities’ both within governments and local organisations, and international non-profits to support them.

International non-profits need to collaborate rather than compete and contribute to strengthening the capabilities of national institutions to adopt more robust processes to identify, define and address the needs of those who are vulnerable, marginalised and are not able to access the most basic needs. There is also a need to facilitate the involvement of the private sector more in providing affordable financial and non financial services that can lead to economic opportunity.

Opportunities exist for advocacy, targeted campaigning and give 'voice' to those who are dis-empowered providing them with opportunities to speak before national policy makers, regional governance institutions and global forums such as the COP events and before the UN.

The quality of assistance can improve, with enhanced transparency and inclusion of people affected and in need of support being included in consultation and decision-making. OECD decision-making processes need reform, especially now in the post Trump and Brexit era. This is happening now. The caveat is that the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) which decides on OECD aid needs to consider equitable, prioritised and unconditional assistance, especially in situations where aid is tied to trade and privatisation.

There also needs to be a greater accountability to people who donate with unstinted generosity in the belief that they can make the world a better place. These are pensioners, taxi drivers, immigrants and those who believe that they are ‘their brother’s keeper’.

Till then let’s not use the word ‘beneficiary’ to categorise the people who require assistance and support in reclaiming their rights, which they are entitled to and own anyway.

The term 'beneficiary' is condescending and is a misrepresentation of the people for whom the aid industry is supposed to work for. To categorise them as ‘beneficiaries’ would also contribute to the perpetuation of social injustice.

I would recommend the book 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' by P. Sainath whose research won him the Magsaysay Award.

If you feel that this is a relevant discussion, please comment on what your thoughts are and ideas on how the work that the aid sector undertakes to do is more accountable, transparent, and effective. Your opinions are important as we attempt to hold ourselves and those whom we collaborate and partner with to be responsible for upholding the standards enshrined in the UDHR formulated in 1948.

Colombo, Sri Lanka

March 4, 2017

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