Nicholas van Praag of Keystone’s Groundtruth programme writes about the importance of language when dealing with the people one is trying to help.

When someone as eloquent as Robert Chambers chides you on your use of language, it is smart to listen. Last week the grand old man of ‘people first’ development challenged participants at the annual meeting of ALNAP to find a word that better describes the focus of their work than beneficiaries; a term that sounds condescending and is sometimes more aspiration than reality.

Of course, everyone knows what it means but that’s not the point. It asserts a hierarchy of givers and takers of benevolence that is not only insulting but symptomatic of an imbalanced relationship.

Words can be charged vehicles of communication and talking about beneficiaries may make us less good at holding ourselves accountable to the end-users of humanitarian aid. Why would you go out of your way to listen harder or respond better to people who you describe as already reaping the rewards of humanitarian beneficence?

Even if it is just a convenient short-hand, the effect of this kind of loose language can have far reaching implications. It is part of a tendency to anonymize people affected by humanitarian crises by using terms like ‘caseloads’ and ‘populations of concern’ that lump them together rather than recognize their distinct characteristics or their potential as individuals

It is just a short step from bundling people together to ignoring the contribution they can make to designing programs, assisting in their implementation and providing feedback about what’s working and what’s not.

In the end it is not about what we call the women, men and children affected by humanitarian crises. It is about finding a way of making room for them in the way humanitarian programs are run. It cannot be right to claim these people as the rationale for your existence and the focus of your activities unless you embrace them as partners in the search for solutions. Robert Chambers, as one of the pioneers of putting people at the center of development processes, is well placed to challenge the humanitarian community. Let us make him proud and come up with not just a better word but a humanitarian system that really does make itself accountable to those it claims to serve.

Nick van Praag directs the Ground Truth programme and leads Keystone’s work in the humanitarian space with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the IKEA Foundation and the Conrad Hilton Foundation.

 

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