The B-Word

February 11, 2013 | Candice Montalvo

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“There are words that shape how we see reality, how we behave, and how we serve or help.”

“Jargon has always been with us and will always be with us.”

These are some of the comments we heard from people who attended a presentation on Time to Listen at InterAction in Washington, DC today.

The use (or non-use) of jargon is a common issue among those of us who work in international aid. Oftentimes, jargon is just a harmless annoyance—think about how everyone is talking “resilience” lately—but sometimes jargon is not so benign. The words we use affect the way we do our work and interact with each other and those we seek to support.

One of the most frequent pieces of feedback LP has heard in recent years, especially in response to Time to Listen, is our use of the word “beneficiaries,” or as one colleague today put it, “the b-word.” This word in particular incites negative gut reactions from many aid workers, who feel that its use indicates an inherently paternalistic relationship.

We agree!

We have tried to find alternatives, such as “recipient” (equally bad), or “local people,” but often we resort to the long-winded descriptor, “people on the receiving end of international aid efforts.” Each of these options has its own baggage and engenders a particular power dynamic. So how do we clearly and easily describe the people we work with and provide services to in developing countries without inadvertently diminishing their role as primary drivers in their own development?

We’d like to hear suggestions from readers on alternatives to the word “beneficiaries.” How do you or your organization describe the people you engage with in local communities?


  1. Thuy Dinh

    Collaborators! as part of the new collaborative-driven “aid” system

    • Candice

      I hadn’t heard that one before! Thank you Thuy. I do like the emphasis on collaboration. Thinking about our audience member’s comment about how words shape the way we see reality and how we behave, I wonder if changing the name from “beneficiary” to “collaborator” would support a change in behavior by aid providers to actually behave more collaboratively with the people they aim to support. I think it would definitely help!

  2. Darius Teter

    Perhaps the most awkward, but one we use a lot at Oxfam, is Change Agents!


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