One topic of debate that periodically seems to crop up on major M&E (and development) listservs is what to call the people our interventions (e.g. projects and programs) target to help. From “beneficiaries” and “clients” to “target population” and “people reached,” semantics vary, with salient considerations (and complications) for measurement. In this blog I’ll 1) discuss a couple glitches with the use of “beneficiary,” 2) acknowledge that wordage ultimately adapts to context, and 3) stress the important distinction between measuring service coverage versus impact.

Whether you work in humanitarian relief or development, the term “beneficiary” is increasing placed on the politically correct blacklist. Much of this is because in English and other languages, “beneficiary” comes across for many as patronizing and disempowering. Etymologically speaking, critics point out that the word suggests someone holding a bowl to be served, implying people are passive recipients of charity rather than participants in their own development.

Another problem is that “beneficiary” implies that those receiving services actually benefit from them, which is not always the case. In fact, that is why we measure higher level objectives or impacts: to see if what we are doing makes a (positive) difference for those we seek to help. There is an important difference between measuring outreach or coverage of people reached by services, versus the desired, higher level changes identified in a theory of change, (whether changes in the behavior, outcomes, or changes in conditions, impact, of people reached). One should not confuse or conflate measurement by combining measures of different levels of results – people reached by services (outputs) versus those positively impacted (outcomes/impact).


Having written this, I tend to take a systems perspective on the usage of “beneficiary,” or the assortment of alternative options, but we should nevertheless be clear (accurate) about what we claim to be measuring.  Let me explain…

By a “systems perspective” I mean there is one universal, all-encompassing word to use for the people we seek to serve, but instead it will vary according to context, (audience and purpose, culture and language, intervention type, etc.).  For example, in some interventions, intended service “recipients” may not participate in the service provision – e.g. in a humanitarian operation where water, blankets or other supplies are distributed. In such instances, terms that convey participation may not be appropriate. In other interventions, engagement and empowerment may be central, as is often is the case in development (e.g. livelihoods projects, or resilience programming stressing social cohesion).

In short, the idea of one standard term to refer to the people we seek to serve is just that – an “idea.” Just as we need to tailor words on a survey to the target audience/purpose, so we must in the other contexts we communicate. Although far from exhaustive, the post-it note below highlights some English alternatives to “beneficiary” I have noted in various discussion threads on this topic. Let’s remember that these are only some of English expressions, and that “intended” can be placed before many to further specify.


These example terms reflect the multiplicity of contexts in which we operate and stakeholders we work with. For example, while my preference is “people reached,” when preparing a funding proposal, I often find I need to use “beneficiary” because this term has currency for the target audience, donors, who expect this word. (The may not read blogs like this or get into the nitty-gritty of metric semantics).

Whatever terms are adopted, we need to make the distinction between measurement of who we target, who we actually reach, and the difference it makes. The diagram below illustrates this; it was shared by my M&E colleague, Harry (Hap) Carr at Catholic Relief Services for a panel we organized on this topic for the 2013 American Evaluation Association (AEA) annual conference (a collaborative session including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Catholic Relief Services and Mercy Corps).


For example, an HIV/AIDS program may target 100,000 people in 50 communities for an awareness raising campaign. The program’s theory of change identifies an output level result to reach the target population with messaging, with an outcome level result of behavioral change (e.g. condom use), and an impact level result of a change in condition (e.g. reduction in HIV prevalence). However, the campaign may not reach all of the target population, and of those people reached, not all may have behavior changes resulting in a positive impact. To measure the higher level, intended results, evaluation methods, (such as surveys and interviews), can be used to assess achievement, (as well as any unanticipated outcomes from the project).

The key is not to confuse or conflate the issue by combining two levels of measure for two different levels of results – people reached versus people positively impacted. Thus, my predilection is to avoid using “beneficiary” unless the “benefits” to the people reached by service has been measured and verified…which is a different measure from people targeted and reached by services.

This is not a call to ban terms such as “beneficiary,” and as I point out, wordage will understandably need to adopt to organizational context. The important point is that if the count is to include people who are not only reached but also benefit from services, it is much more than a simple count, but also measurement of higher level outcomes (e.g. behavior changes), and impact (change in condition/s). For example, the United Nations World Food Programme’s Beneficiary Contact Monitoring guidelines (2014) outlines qualitative methods to assess not only beneficiaries’ access to provided outputs, but also their satisfaction with and the utility of the outputs.

Much of the accountability agenda in the aid industry has understandably focused on measuring impact rather than just counts – people want to know what difference is being made. This is real important and good. However, semantics aside, we should not underestimate the challenges encountered when measuring service outreach, or people reached. The measurement of coverage can be trickier than one may think. This is especially true for larger organizations/operations in complex settings.  Challenges such as double counting, and distinguishing between direct and indirect recipients of services can be formidable when operating in multiple sectors over different time periods, in overlapping locations, and among shared populations. That is the topic of my companion blog to this, Counting People Reach – Navigating direct, indirect and double counting.


Picture explanation – the picture of the eye from the start of this blog is a “zoom in” of this picture here, a community volunteer for a household survey for a Malaria prevention survey in the Caprivi Strip, Namibia. She was very much a “participant” and not just a “beneficiary” in the program.