Are poor people the best experts on poverty?

June 9, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

A series of conversations in recent weeks have made me think a bit harder about the uses and abuses of testimony/first hand experience. First up, the launch of the World Bank book, Moving Out of Poverty at the ODI the other week (see my perhaps over the top review of the book back in March), where I was a ‘discussant’ (horrible word).

MOOP is full of the kinds of unforgettable quotes that NGOs will be using for years. Here’s a sample:

– In Colombia, ‘Poverty winds around people like a python, so they are unable to breath’
– After a malaria outbreak, ‘A shadow of sorrow prevailed in the village. Even those who did not die became angry and mentally disturbed. The villagers lost interest in work.’
– In Andhra Pradesh ‘Like dogs at burial grounds, government officials look for money’

But Caroline Harper, of ODI, took issue with the book’s almost exclusive reliance on the testimony of poor people. Researchers asked people how they had got out of poverty and not surprisingly 75% or so said they did so thanks to their own initiative. The book pretty much takes that on trust and concludes (caricaturing a bit) that helping budding entrepreneurs is the best way forward. But what if they had asked their neighbours about the reasons of success? Somehow I think they would have got different answers with more emphasis on luck, connections, cheating etc.

This is verging on breaking some kind of NGO taboo, since we tend to stress the superiority of participation, consultation and the witness of people living in poverty (for the case for the validity of testimony see here). But Caroline (an anthropologist by training) was brave enough to conclude ‘the individual is not always the best expert on their own life’. Here’s an excerpt from her blog on the meeting:

‘The ability of ‘the poor’ (or indeed any of us) to define the impact of systemic discrimination and social orders in our lives is often limited, as social norms are all encompassing and determine how we see the world in which we live. 

We – probably most of you reading this blog – are so used to travel that we forget how much it helps us reflect on who we are and how we live. We are made more aware of ourselves in relation to others by stepping out of our own communities, and see our own lives as if from a distance.  If you never step out of your social norm, how can you know how your life is shaped; how it may be different? 

Therefore, I have real concerns about allowing self definition to drive the methodology and indeed the conclusions of this book, and I disagree with its claim that ‘the individual is the expert on her own life’. I understand the intention of this sentence, with so many ‘development experts’ already telling the poor what to do, but individuals do need a wider perspective to understand and indeed change their own life.’

All very convincing, but then last week I gave a speech to a hall full of Spanish development NGOs in which, among other things, I urged them to see urbanization and migration as positive contributors to development, avoiding the ‘peasant romanticism’ that is so common among aid agencies. Afterwards I was accosted by a very determined activist who made a classic ‘false consciousness’ argument for why so many children of peasant farmers want to migrate to the cities. They may think that the town is better, she said, but if we only invested more in agriculture, they would all happily stay on the farm. It got a bit heated.

Deepa Narayan, the author of Moving Out of Poverty, found that only 4% of the children of farmers expressed a wish to stay on the land, which fits with my own conversations over the years, so you need a quite breathtaking level of self belief/arrogance to think the other 96% are simply misguided. Who to believe, poor farmers and their kids, or a peasant romantic living in Madrid? No contest. Even with Caroline’s caveats, we should still start by listening to the voices of the poor, even if we then qualify what we hear with other evidence. Maybe we should distinguish more clearly between the areas where testimony is most reliable (what does living in poverty feel like? what actually happened to you? what are your desires for the future?) and areas where more supporting evidence is needed (how did you manage to get out of poverty? what held you back? why have things changed/stayed the same? should we spend the money on roads, schools or irrigation?)

June 9, 2009
Duncan Green