Who benefits from development?

A few years ago, I was standing in a field in the coastal area of Ghana, West Africa. I was there with Irish Methodist World Development & Relief (WDR) as part of my work and had travelled with my colleague and volunteers from Ireland who had photography and videography skills that they were sharing with WDR at no expense. We were visiting work being managed by Methodist Development and Relief Services (MDRS) and farmers were planting new strains of coconut trees to replace those that had been devastated by a killer virus. In that one field, we had donor organisation staff, donor supporters/volunteers, staff from the partner NGO and beneficiaries, the farmers, all ‘doing their thing’. A nice illustration of working together to improve things.

Spot the beneficiaries: Tim West (photographer), Grace Quansah (MDRS volunteer) and Mr Addison (local coordinator).

Spot the beneficiaries: Tim West (photographer), Grace Quansah (MDRS volunteer) and Mr Addison (local coordinator).

In WDR, we have tried to outlaw the word ‘project’ as we feel it puts an emphasis on ‘things rather than people’ e.g. the number of wells dug rather than the improvement in the quality of life for the community. That’s why we use the phrase ‘People not Projects’ as a mantra at times, especially when presenting people’s stories through picture, written word and video.

As WDR thinks more and more about how we refer to people and the language we use, there is something about my description of the people in that Ghanaian field that makes me uncomfortable. Three words to be precise. The words are ‘donor’, ‘partner’ and ‘beneficiary’. In the traditional view of international development, a donor gives funds to a partner (typically an organisation) and the partner then carries out work to improve the lives of beneficiaries (typically the materially poor). This paints a rather one-way flow in the system; from donor to beneficiary. It does not describe good development practice well nor, indeed, the reality of what is really happening.

Instead of suggesting we look for new more inclusive alternatives for these terms, I offer another option; one that we at WDR, try to embrace.

Firstly, ALL are in that scene are ‘partners’. Partnership is about people with common values gathering around a common task in order to see it achieved. True partnership speaks of equality and equity, where everyone is of equal value and is treated with fairness by each of the others. The Ghanaian farmer, MDRS coordinating staff, WDR volunteers and staff; all are of equal value and should be treated as such. All are aiming to reduce poverty and improve lives and have gathered around common values such as justice, compassion and solidarity. Thus, they are all partners in the task. Together, they can each achieve more than they would on their own. Economic status plays no part in whether or not a person can be a partner. Another point to make is that WDR partners with people, not organisations. So when I think of MDRS, I am actually thinking of Joseph Donkoh, Mr Addison and so many other good people.

Secondly, ALL are ‘donors’. The ‘donor’ has usually been assumed to be the group that provides the financial input for a project. But money is not the only input required for successful development. Skills, local knowledge, labour, experience and relationships on the ground are also needed and it is usually local NGOs and communities that possess these valuable assets. WDR supporters may have the money to buy new coconut seedlings but they probably do not have years of experience in farming in southern Ghana nor the connections with local landowners in order to obtain new tracts of land. Each partner can ‘donate’ what they have.

Lastly, ALL are beneficiaries. You may have been with me up to this point and in agreement but this last claim may seem harder to justify. A beneficiary is the one to receive the positive changes brought about by the work. The farmer grows new trees and harvests the coconuts. It is clearly the farmer and his or her family that is benefitting. There is no benefit for the supporter who contributes to the fund or the staff of the NGO. Right? I would say wrong.

For example, being part of this wonderful WDR network of people has huge benefits for me personally. I get a huge sense of satisfaction by being involved in something that is good and successful. As someone with a Christian faith, I am able to fulfil my obligation to help the materially poor. Others who contribute from the ‘Irish end’ and yet do not proclaim any form of faith, will also get huge satisfaction and fulfilment from partnering with people across the world to make that world a better place. I also get to have an insight into other cultures and the lives of others; a very enriching experience. The staff of NGOs, like myself, earn a living and they also see their own communities progressing thanks to their efforts; surely a heartening and uplifting experience that does the soul good. These are all good things received and so I would suggest that everyone is a ‘beneficiary’, admittedly in very different ways.

Whether by making our contribution to the world by bringing clean water to rural villages, ensuring healthcare for a woman of a lower caste or providing education for marginalised children; if we do this well with others, we can be a partner, donor and beneficiary all at the same time.

Maybe this is obvious to you already or maybe this has made you think. Just to add, if we claim to be in partnership then we must treat our partners as our equals. If we claim to be a donor, then let us give what we can and give generously. If we consider ourselves to be beneficiaries then let us recognise the gifts we receive and receive them gratefully from those who have given them.

So, thank you to my partners in that field in Ghana. They give me purpose, meaning and fulfilment. On the surface of it, I appear to be giving them coconuts. Hopefully, if we were to scratch beneath the surface, they are receiving much more.