In international aid, people should be seen as consumers not ‘beneficiaries’

May 13, 2015

Rubayat Khan

A poor widow in rural Bangladesh can choose from many competing mobile phone operators, weighing the best rates and customer service in order to reach her decision. Why should she not also have the right to choose, or at least be informed about, which NGO builds her flood-resistant home and be given the right to seek redress if it is washed away next flood season.

For the billions of the poorest people around the world who rely on philanthropic aid to meet even basic needs, as the saying goes, “beggars can’t be choosers”. But why shouldn’t philanthropic programmes abide by the same consumer rights rules expected of a traditional business selling soap or toothpaste? Both are delivering products or services to people, be they wealthy or impoverished: the only major difference is who is paying for it.

Donors and beneficiaries

During the colonial period, the “white man’s burden” mindset, which deemed it a responsibility of western colonisers to help “backward” and “uncultured” people of Africa, Asia and the Americas, was well-established and even morally respectable. While we have long moved past those days, what has survived in the world of global development is the treatment of clients as “beneficiaries”, not consumers. There seems to be an expectation that if you do not pay for a service in cash, you at least owe unquestioning gratitude.

This has implications for how services are designed by development programmes. When you design something for a “beneficiary”, it may seem okay not to involve them centrally in the process. You may do a few token interviews, spend a week in the field, and already pretend to know enough about their lives and problems to allow you to carefully craft a $50m set of products or services to “help them”.

In this model, the real consumer is the donor footing the bill, and every effort goes into satisfying the donor’s needs. Donors, on their part, appreciate an annual report illustrated with beautiful pictures of smiling poor children in front of a newly funded school. God forbid should anyone ask the children if they are satisfied with the quality of the schools built in their village.

As a development practitioner and consultant, I have helped design and implement numerous NGO and donor-funded programmes where the involvement of the beneficiaries, or customers, was minimal at best. And there was rarely any regular feedback mechanism to track whether the end-users were satisfied with what they were getting.

Contrast this with how a business — even a business exclusively catering to the same poor people — would design its products. It would spend countless hours doing market research, identify real problems, develop prototype solutions and market test-them through several iterations, then continuously examine data on everything from sales volume to customer satisfaction. The company would even make minor tweaks to the product’s scent or packaging to appeal to the rural consumer’s tastes.

So why don’t we apply the same approach to aid?

Listen, test, refine

When my co-founders and I launched a social enterprise in Bangladesh to improve the health access of poor rural populations through a tablet-based app we deliberately tried to do things differently. To design a service that was appealing and served the real needs of people, we lived with communities for several months, trying to understand every nuance of why, where and how people seek healthcare. We constantly experimented with our service and completely scrapped our app twice to improve the customer experience in an effort to entice people to choose us over competing providers. And we continuously measured satisfaction with our service through interviews and follow-up phone calls. These follow-ups still guide our decision-making every day and help us manage the performance of our teams in the field.

This approach certainly costs more in the initial design stages of a project. However, it also greatly enhances the chances of success at building more context-relevant and sustainable solutions. It seems a prudent investment of time and resources, except in emergency-response settings, where urgency trumps all else.

There are thankfully similar efforts already sprouting within the mainstream development industry, albeit at the fringes. Some leading NGOs are experimenting with innovative human-centred design approaches — essentially methods to understand consumer problems in order to drive better solutions and provide input into programme designs. Some have even altered the lingo and banned the word “beneficiary”, opting for “client” instead.

But while changing the terminology is a useful first step, it is hardly enough to change mindsets that have been deeply ingrained in the development sector for more than 50 years. The UN convention on consumer protection states, among other things, that consumers have the right to be informed, to be represented and heard in decision-making processes, and the right to redress. The development sector still has a very long way to go to build these core values into their projects and daily practices. Only then will the word “consumer” really include us all.

Rubayat Khan is co-founder of mPower Social Enterprises, and a 2015 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Follow @rubayatkhan on Twitter.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —Originally published in The Guardian

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