In International Aid, people should be seen as consumers not ‘beneficiaries’

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.

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.