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Labelling People in Humanitarian Discourse

The word "beneficiary” is used throughout the Code of Conduct and in humanitarian discourse generally as a label to describe people who receive humanitarian assistance or protection. Beneficiary comes from the Latin words bene and facere meaning to do good. People who are beneficiaries are therefore people who have benefited from something or someone. In English, the word became a key contractual term in the English law of charity and trusts. Every charity was established to benefit certain groups of needy people. These beneficiaries subsequently had certain claims on money earmarked for their good. Legally, therefore, the idea of a beneficiary comes with certain rights and entitlements. However, in charitable discourse it has also tended to embody the power differential between giver and receiver in a way that puts the beneficiaries of a charity in an inferior position: lucky to have been chosen, and required to show some gratitude for the gifts they have received.

The need for a single, simple label to work as a catch-all term in humanitarian action and reporting is understandable. Businesses and public services have customers and clients. The medical profession has patients, derived from patiens, the Latin word for one who suffers. Airlines and railway companies have passengers. Humanitarian professionals have beneficiaries. But I have never been comfortable with this word and always avoid it, as I have done throughout this book. My doubts stem from observing the word being degraded into a term of disrespect in the mouths of some humanitarian workers, and being rejected as a passive label by disaster-affected communities themselves. Often frustrated and exhausted in difficult situations, humanitarian workers can be heard almost spitting out the word sometimes. Like bad shopkeepers and harassed bus drivers who start seeing their customers and passengers as the problem in their business, some humanitarian workers come to see "the beneficiaries” as the problem in a project which would run much more smoothly without them. I have also noticed that when I used the word myself, I quickly lost sight of the fact that I was thinking and talking about people, most of whom were having a terrible time.

Like all labels we use to categorize things, the word beneficiary can evolve to encompass the category alone, no longer conjuring up the individuality of those within. The same thing happens with terms like the rich, the poor, peasants, landlords, Protestants, Catholics, Sunni, Shia, criminals and saints. Each of these labels can take on a pernicious meaning over time that reflects the power differences and bias of their users. At worst, these categories become terms of abuse. Using the abstract and essentially bureaucratic word "beneficiary” to refer to people in humanitarian operations runs three particular moral risks:

  • • Firstly, the very word assumes that people are benefiting, and only benefiting. It continuously and subconsciously reinforces the idea that people are passive and not active in their own survival. They benefit but do not contribute. Beyond these implications about personal agency, the label also assumes that what beneficiaries receive does actually benefit them and is indeed good (beneficent). So, if I talk all the time of beneficiaries in my project I will inevitably and unconsciously lose a sense of objectivity about the quality of the project. I will be less likely to think about the potential maleficence of the project or the difficulty of people’s experience.
  • • Secondly, labelling is lumping. By calling everybody beneficiaries we tend towards generalized thinking that assumes that people in communities are all the same, have experienced the same things, need the same things and should get the same things. Lumping inhibits nuanced thinking about people’s diversity, which we know to be so important in humanitarian programming.
  • • Thirdly, when we talk about people in categories we can begin to dehumanize them. Refusing to talk about people as people is the first step in the numbing and negative reframing that is so critical to the construction of enmity.24 This is obviously a long way from how humanitarian workers view people they are trying to help, but the risks of numbing and de-humanizing are possible in humanitarian work if we constantly talk about people as an abstract category rather than as men, women, children, young or old people. As a general moral rule, the more personal we are in the language with which we talk and think about people, the more humane we are likely to be.

Humanitarian action has other labels for people, notably: civilians, non-combatants, refugees and IDPs. The first three of these labels have very specific status in international law, and the fourth is increasingly gaining such a status. Like any labels, these terms carry the negative risks of lumping and de-humanizing, but this risk is significantly reduced by the very idea of dignity and rights they carry with them from the law. Because of this inherent status, it is wiser and more respectful of people to use these labels when it is necessary or unavoidable to talk about general categories of person in humanitarian discourse.

The other conventional humanitarian term is “victim”. This label is an important one because of its emphasis on criminally imposed suffering or tragic accident, and is more widely used in the continental European tradition of humanitarian action than in Britain and North America. However, while the victim label is legally powerful and demands a certain reciprocal duty to punish the perpetrator and repair the damage, the word can smother people with an overwhelming and incomplete identity they do not want or are seeking to overcome. There is also a danger that humanitarian action has political interests in creating and sustaining victim identities as an unconscious part of its global expansion around the world.25 So-called “victim consciousness” is a mixed emotion that comes with strengths and weaknesses in different phases of survival. Victim is not usually an identity that serves people well in the long term. This is clearly shown in Holocaust studies, where people prefer to be called “Holocaust survivors”; or in the field of health, where people prefer to be known as “people living with HIV” rather than “AIDS victims”. Once again, the moral rule is to focus on people’s humanity: on who they are and not on what has happened to them.

The dignity principles in humanitarian ethics emphasize that enabling people to restore and achieve their dignity in the practical method of humanitarian programmes is a moral obligation with deep roots in the principle of humanity itself. The next concern of humanitarian ethics is to make such improvements last and to show humanitarian effect to those who have invested in it or are entitled to it. These are the questions of sustainability and accountability.

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