Clients at the center? Yeah, right...

Clients at the center? Yeah, right...

I was just browsing my Twitter messages and came across this one from Microfinance Focus:

Global Microcredit Summit 2011: At the centre of microfinance is the Client

Now, I could be a little bit charitable here, I could say that there are nuances that I’m sure the writer would have brought out if she or he had more than 140 characters - the message length limit on Twitter, and I could say that statements of good intention are valuable even if, like this one, they are just mush. But - no charity tonight. Sorry. That tweet is just wrong.

If you define someone as a client, she is clearly not at the center. The firm is at the center, and the clients are around it, or under it. The word client comes from the Latin cluere meaning “hear or obey.” Someone whose job it is to hear and obey isn’t “at the center”. The person being heard and obeyed is at the center!

Admittedly, etymology doesn’t prove much. Let’s move on and think about how we actually use the word:

Permeating our use of the word “client” is the sense that something else is at the center, and the client is on the outside. When we have two nations, one of which is dependent on the other, we call the weaker, dependent nation the “client state”. When we have computers that access information stored on faster, larger computers, we call the small ones the “clients” and the central one “the server”. Clients are never at the center.

Let’s listen to someone else writing about this issue:

The words we use to describe those who use our services are, at one level, metaphors that indicate how we conceive them. At another level such labels operate discursively, constructing both the relationship and attendant identities of people participating in the relationships, inducing very practical and material outcomes (“Challenging Social Work: The Context of Practice”, McDonald, 2006, p. 115).

I have written elsewhere that microcredit started to go sour when MFI managers started asking each other, “How many clients do you have”? That reduced people to assets. Microfinance got to be about MFIs, not about people. Our confusion about corporations and people is reflected in something that Mitt Romney, a recent candidate to be president of the US, said famously,  “Corporations are people, my friend”.

Some people in the front of the audience shouted, “No, they’re not!”

“Of course they are,” Romney said. “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?”

Oh, shut up, Mitt: corporations aren’t people, and clients aren’t at the center of the corporation-client relationship. And don't get me started on Trump...



Reader Comments (4)

The Alay Buhay Community Development Foundation, which includes a microfinance programme in its repertoire of services to urban & rural poor in the Philippines, uses the term "partner" for those it serves. Their intent is to communicate the shared basis on which they work together, incorporating both the humility of the organisation as service provider and the responsibilities of service users. It reflects the mutual interdependence of the relationship.

Tue, November 15, 2011 | Greg Pirie

Thanks Greg. Love it.

Tue, November 15, 2011 | Paul Rippey

I just was on a panel with Ingrid Munro of Jamii Bora trust. They call their clients "members" and state that most of their staff are former members. They try to keep it real by making the distinction between "us" and "them" minimal. 
I will not elaborate here but my first impressions attending my 4th MicroCredit Summit is that the slippery slope of microfinance has (with a few exceptions) turned into a receding glacier. I'll elaborate more in an "On-The-Scene - SR Cub Reporter" blog post later.

Tue, November 15, 2011 | Bill Maddocks

I was really impressed that you actually developed a blog post which rich content like this from a Twitter post. Anyway, thanks for clearing out this thingy about client.

Tue, November 15, 2011 | Sybil Wieners

NB: Originally published November 2011, and republished with a later date to move it closer to the top of the list. As relevant as always - even more so now that CGAP names "customers" as its first focus area

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