Is There a ‘Right’ Word? How to Transcend Unhelpful Dichotomies in the Development and Peacebuilding Jargon

I am currently reading a book recently released on local ownership and peacebuilding. There is little doubt that ‘local ownership’ is problematic term and the book dives greatly into this, so no big surprises on this front. Yet, what took me surprise at some point was to find the term ‘client’ used to refer to the country that is usually referred to as the ‘recipient’, in opposition to ‘donor’, in the development and peacebuilding jargon. That was new for me.

‘Why ‘client’?’, that was the immediate question crossing my mind. Then again, why not? Let’s face it; ‘recipient’ is odd enough… After all, who is the ‘receiver’ in the context of ‘donors-recipient’ relationship? For starters, ‘donors’ alone is misleading, as it carries a ‘charity’ aspect that is doubtful in the context of international politics. Ultimately the ‘donor’ countries generates many jobs for their own nationals, establish networks in the ‘recipient’ countries that may lead later (if not immediately) to new trade opportunities, new consumers, besides exporting cultural, social and other values. Moreover, in a context where ‘aid’ is often tie to numerous conditionalities and used as strategy to influence political and economic pathways in the ‘recipient’ countries, there is little doubt that there are many agendas underlying foreign aid.

So what about ‘client’? A quick search at the Oxford English Dictionary shows the following entries for ‘client’:

1. Roman Hist. A plebeian under the patronage of a patrician, in this relation called a patron (patrōnus), who was bound, in return for certain services, to protect his client’s life and interests.

2.a. gen. One who is under the protection or patronage of another, a dependant. Sometimes applied to one who pays constant court to an influential person as patron; a ‘hanger-on’; also, to the vassals or retainers of the middle ages.

2.b. An adherent or follower of a master.

3.a. spec. One who employs the services of a legal adviser in matters of law; he whose cause an advocate pleads.

3.b. One who has a spiritual advocate.

4.a. gen. A person who employs the services of a professional or business man or woman in any branch of business, or for whom the latter acts in a professional capacity; a customer.

4.b. A person helped by a social worker; a case.

What is interesting about these entries is that, whilst the relationship between the ‘client’ and the ‘master/patron/spiritual advocate/social worker’ may differ in term of its agenda (e.g., spiritual, economic, service provision), what frames the relationship is still the very significant difference of power between the two parts. Ultimately the ‘master/patron/etc.’ is the ‘provider’; he is the one with power (including knowledge). So, whether the ‘client’ benefits from the relationship, e.g. by obtaining protection, services, special favours, he is still the ‘weak part’ in the relationship. Here is where we could place a post-colonial critique of the term, which, in this case, would not be that different from the idea of ‘recipient’. So, as much as the case with ‘recipient’, ‘client’ connotes a top-down relationship that fits nicely with other dichotomies in the development/peacebuilding language.

For instance, let us take another popular term: ‘capacity building’, upgraded to ‘capacity development’ and ‘capacity enhancement’. I don’t want to minimise the difference between ‘building’, ‘development’ and ‘enhancement’. Better think in terms of improving what already exists than treat the ‘recipient’ as a blank page. Yet, the fundamental difference is still there: there is one side that is the ‘capacitator’ and another who is ‘the one who will be capacitated’. The active/passive difference here is crucial. It says that, even though the one ‘to be capacitated’ knows something of value (in the case of capacity ‘development’ and ‘enhacement’), it is not as much or as good as what the ‘capacitator has to offer’.

Let me clarify: I appreciate the fact that in some circumstances (e.g., a major civil war or major health catastrophes), basic things often need to start from ‘zero’, for instance, when there are no doctors to treat killing disease in the context of epidemics, or something of this sort. Yet, and perhaps more often than not, this is not the case. Additionally, more often than what is recognised, the ‘capacitators’ need ‘capacitation’ about the environment and they people their work with as much as the latter needs the knowledge of the former.

To sum up, perhaps it is time to move beyond this dichotomic view of relationships that frames the development and peacebuilding jargon. In fact, perhaps it is time to re-think even the North-South framework that still shapes our intellectual thinking in these fields. The increasing engagement of ‘emerging powers’ (yes, anther problematic concept — which concept is not…?) in the field of ‘international cooperation’ (as many prefer, instead of ‘aid’) brings an important opportunity to rethink these intellectual parameters, as who is ‘North’ and ‘South’ is not as straightforward as it used to be (was it ever?).

Ok, so let’s say we agree on this, then how to do it? Moving back to the ‘donors-recipient/client’ dichotomy, which terms could be used as replacement to ‘donor/recipent’? Let me refer to a book that I really enjoyed reading, From Pacification to Peacebuilding, by Diana Francis. At some point she states that we need to move from a framework of ‘solidarity’ to a framework of ‘partnership’. You may say, ‘well, partnership may convey a degree of equality that is not there’ (even though ’emerging powers’ love to talk about ‘horizontal cooperation’… another big discussion). To this I would reply ‘not necessarily’. I think the beauty of partnership is that it highlights that both parts are agents in the relationship (instead of master/disciple, teacher/learner, active/passive, etc.). At the same time, the partnership dos not preclude the existence of asymmetries in different fields that sustain the relationship. For instance, even in a business context, one can be the financial provider, and the other the service provider, and no one is necessarily less important than the other, even though, depending on the context, one may have more power than the other and a different ability to bargain. Thus ‘partnership’ allows for a plurality of roles, which may reflect different aspects of the relationship that are hidden when we frame the debate from a dichotomic perspective.

As an academic, I have to confess being guilty of using ‘recipient countries’ many times. While never satisfied with this term, though, I never took the time to find a better word. By doing this, I am aware that I simply re-created the analytical framework I was critical of. Tough exercise, indeed (think of all the concepts we use just because we don’t find a better one…), yet, extremely necessary if we want to think out of the box and exercise our creative thinking.


2 thoughts on “Is There a ‘Right’ Word? How to Transcend Unhelpful Dichotomies in the Development and Peacebuilding Jargon

  1. I agree! We have a great, but crucial challenge ahead! I would say that acknowledgement is key and has a big role in this framework “shift”. It does not matter the kind of relationship, donor/recipient, active/passive, victim/perpetrator – as in my research  -, they are all framed in this dichotomous perspective that undermines their true natures. The acknowledgement of each other’s strengths and weaknesses would allow them to empower themselves and become real agents! Hopefully, a step to a “healthier” relationship.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so interested to see how you will work with this in the case of the victim/perpetrator case… I guess in certain cases some would say they are both victims (?), but I can only imagine the complex analytical implications of this, especially if you add to this the perspective of ‘justice’.


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