Flashback Friday: Listening to the Voices of the Poor

Every Friday I’ll be looking to my To Be Read pile to unearth classic development reading gems that I probably should have read years ago. Never too late!

This week’s Flashback Friday I’m going to party like it’s 1999 to celebrate the World Bank getting its listening on. Yes, it’s that most classic of all classics – the Voices of the Poor reports (which were actually published in 2000 but anyway). I have always been interested in humankind and its diversity, and anthropology and social research gets my nerdy heart racing. But the Voices of the Poor takes learning about people across the globe to a whole new level. This week I’ll be looking at Volume 1 of these reports, which presents the findings of analysis on participatory poverty appraisal processes that were carried out in 50 countries, gathering the perspectives of 40,000 people, over the course of the 1990s.  This post attempts to pull out some of the nugget quotes and tidbits so I can cherish them always and forever.  In future posts, I’ll look at the other volumes of the Voices of the Poor reports.

In summary, the findings of Volume 1: Can Anyone Hear Us? gives us the blunt-edged assessment that households are crumbling under the stresses of poverty, the state has been ineffective, NGOs don’t make much difference, and the one safety net poor people have, networks (read: each other), are unravelling.

By taking an institutional analysis framework to these issues, the report sheds light on what bars poor people from gaining access and the role of institutional relationships in perpetuating poverty.  People are intimidated and humiliated, and are expected to pay bribes just to get access to services they are entitled to.  Local elite and local leaders act as effective gatekeepers to government-provided assistance, either diverting resources to their own use, or further deepening their power over the poor by becoming the resource distributors; cooperation across class/caste occurs primarily if the problem affects the rich just as much as the poor.  But redistributing power is not high on the agenda.  Organisations that help to increase the bargaining power of the poor, or to correct the fundamental power inequities at the household, community, or state level, are conspicuous in their absence from the participatory poverty appraisal reports.  Sometimes NGO staff are perceived rude, forceful and poor listeners whose programs are irrelevant, self-serving and limited in their outreach.  And the informal institutions and networks that poor people rely on and trust are generally only able to serve a “defensive function”, not a “transformative function” – they do little to move poor people out of poverty.

All of this shows that “changing poor people’s lives for the better is inherently complex because poverty is never caused by the lack of one thing but it involves many interrelated elements; the analysis reveals that without shifts in power relations, poor people cannot access or shape the resources aimed to assist them”.  The report’s conclusions sets out the four critical elements that a strategy for change must include:

  • First, we have to start with poor people’s realities.  We have to remember the multidimensionality of poverty, and that poor people’s definitions of poverty include not only economic well-being but also powerlessness, shame, social isolation, and vulnerability.
  • The organisational capacity of the poor has to be invested in.  Social capital of the poor is in decline, and networks of poor people serve a survival and social function.  So developing the organisational capacity of the poor to influence institutions, change social relations etc requires long-term trust, and financing.
  • Social norms have to change.  Changes in social norms mean changing mindsets, combining the power of the individual and the power of the institute, and facing up to pervasive gender inequalities.
  • And development entrepreneurs need to be supported.  New alliances can be formed between the state and the poor, civil society, and international development agencies.  Honest officials or caring local leaders “are surrounded by a mire of corruption”, but we can help to recognise, support and empower these individuals, and we can work to redesign institutional environments

The insights of this analysis are really important contributions to understanding how poverty is produced, why it persists, and what strategies might be effective to alleviate it.  Ultimately,

The central story of this review is about the tenacity of social norms, unequal distribution of power, and the indomitable spirit of poor people.




(h/t themetapicture.com)

As chief econo…

As chief economist, my view is that there is only one client—the poor in my countries. The government is the intermediary to reach the poor. If the government is a functioning intermediary, then I work with them (and I have pretty low standards for what “functioning” means). But if the government does not seem to represent the interests of the poor (and there is evidence, often derived from your work, to that effect), then I work directly with the public, informing them of the evidence, so that they can bring pressure to bear on government to give them what they are due. Sometimes, this makes governments (not to mention my managers) uncomfortable, but if we are serious about ending poverty, I’m convinced that this is how we should operate.

Shanta Devarajan, Chief Economist at The World Bank in this blog post on cash transfers.

Who really owns “country ownership”

In this article on country ownership in the Global Fund Observer Newsletter, Kaye Macintyre delves into “the disconnect between the assumptions of the principle of country ownership and the realities of the political spaces” in countries where the Global Fund is working to respond and prevent AIDS, TB and malaria.  She points out that civil society/people living with HIV/women/young people having a voice and a say is rare and challenging.  And even in countries with more established democracies with protected spaces for freedom of speech, the perspectives of government on access to treatment for AIDS hasn’t always aligned with the perspective of those impacted by AIDS.  So instead of reflecting widespread agreement and prioritisation, “country ownership” is really just “recipient government ownership”.  And that, Kaye says, is really just an exit strategy for donors and a way to meet the requirement for program proposal or reporting documents to show that there will be sustainability once the donor leaves.

Flashback Friday: Mandated Empowerment

Every Friday I’ll be looking to my To Be Read pile to unearth classic development reading gems that I probably should have read years ago.  Never too late! 

Participation.  Ownership.  Empowerment.  All good things to be aiming for, right?  Well, as long as we’re doing it right, but not when we are doing it because we think it is right.  That is the message I get out of Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s 2008 paper, Mandated Empowerment: Handing Antipoverty Policy Back to the Poor?

Banerjee and Duflo. I’m sure those kids weren’t required to participate in this photo. [Source: Telegraph via Google Images]

The paper starts by setting the scene in which more and more development programs and anti-poverty policies are emphasising the role that poor people need to play in helping themselves.  From conditional cash transfers to Village Education Committees (VEC), “the poor are being handed the responsibility for making things better for themselves”.  But B&D ask whether the poor really want to take on this responsibility.

They draw on data from two earlier studies – one on entrepreneurship among the poor, and another looking at parental involvement in public school reform – to analyse the effects of “mandated empowerment” programs.  The findings from the community-controlled school management program in India are pretty striking.  Mandating participation ain’t that effective it turns out.  By law, every village in Uttar Pradesh has to have a VEC.  But in the villages studied, 92% of parents whose kids go to the government school had never heard of such a committee.  Even people who were on the committee didn’t know they were on the committee.

And the idea that transparency and access to information will lead to community pressure and demand for better services sort of falls apart under the scrutiny of this research too.  In a randomly chosen set of 130 villages in Jaunpur district in India, parents were given information on how little their kids were learning, as well as suggestions about how they could complain to service providers and government officials.  But all this information made absolutely no difference in the learning performance of the kids in those schools.

In its conclusion, the paper points out that we do not fully understand what motivates the poor (hmm…will we ever?) and we are underestimating the constraints they face in acting.  Let’s face it, after another bleepin’ hard day’s work the last thing we’d want to have to do is go to another bleepin’ community meeting to decide which teacher to hire and how much to pay them and how to make sure they turn up to work and oh god this is what I pay taxes for surely it’s someone else’s job to sort this out! … Poor people probably don’t want to have to do it either.

Links I’ve read lately

  • Drowning Kiribati: “All it takes is one wave… When Ban Ki Moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, paid an overnight visit to Tarawa a couple of years ago, his security guards placed a life jacket in his hotel room, just in case.”
  • Do you know what the problem is?  Do you know what the solution is?  Are you confident that the implementor will be free to implement the solution?  Is the implementor extrinsically motivated (eg by money)?  If yes, Results Based Aid is for you!  If not…well, come join the rest of us who seem to be just making it all up as we go along.
  • Nevermind, we might all be out of a job soon anyway.  At least, not as expat aid workers (“The field is good for us, but are we good for the field?”) or in big, bad donor agencies (“In fact, aid donors themselves have fed the problem, giving absolute sovereignty to the head of state, channeling funds through central government, making a handful of ministries powerful gatekeepers, and sending good money after bad.”)

Flashback Friday: An Upside Down View of Governance

Every Friday I’ll be looking to my To Be Read pile to unearth classic development reading gems that I probably should have read years ago.  Never too late! 

Improving governance and supporting fragile states is a key challenge in development.  But sometimes development partners come at these issues from a narrow view that aims to create rules and institutions, stamp out informal networks and personalised relationships which are seen as corrupt, and create formal accountability mechanisms.  But a 2010 paper from the Institute of Development Studies, An Upside Down View of Governance aims to turn this “West is best” view on its head.  It shows that informal institutions can be part of the governance solution.

Cover page of An Upside Down View of Governance

The book starts by bluntly setting out the reality:

Building effective, accountable formal institutions in poor countries has proved much harder than many people expected. Experience suggests that ‘skipping straight to Weber’ will not work.

So instead, the authors suggest building on existing “informal” relationships and the interests and incentives at play, as a way to move forward.  They suggest that development workers need to strip out the assumptions and values inherent in the way we talk about this stuff.  Using the terms “vested interests” or “elite interests” implies something selfish.  But elites are central to creating effective public authority, so we need to think about how their interests could overlap with a progressive and reformist agenda, rather than seeing them as always out to make a quick buck at the expense of others.  And seeing “civil society” as the golden children who can do no wrong is similarly flawed.

The book provides an interesting exploration of the circumstances in which poor people can be effective in demanding accountability and improved performance from service providers:

Effective collective action involves organising around broadly shared goals, not just narrow, exclusive interests; and ongoing action that engages with the state, not just ad hoc protests or self-help initiatives. Establishing formal mechanisms for participation and/or ‘strengthening’ civil society groups with money and skills are important but not sufficient to make this happen.

When a donor or NGO comes into a community from outside and starts to set up new institutions for citizen participation, these new groups will be on the margins, and will have few relations to the agents of the state.  They don’t play a role in incentives or influence informal network functioning, so they don’t hold sway.  We need to realise that the way things work in these communities isn’t always us vs them, government vs the citizens, but that there are existing networks and connections linking people and groups together.  If we identify these relationships and figure out people get access and influence, we can work with these systems.

“When a poor pe…

“When a poor person moves from a low-productivity job to a higher-productivity one, we usually celebrate. … But when that same worker happens to cross a national border, we call it “migration” and, instead of celebrating, we start investigating the effects on workers, firms and public finances in the new environment; and on those left behind (the so-called “brain drain”). Instead of promoting structural transformation, we look for policies to manage it.”

Gluttony: It really is a deadly sin, and the global food system really ain’t helping

Over Christmas, we [Britons] chuck out the equivalent of 2 million turkeys, 5 million Christmas puddings and 74 million mince pies.

That’s Duncan Green summarising information from a 2012 Love Food Hate Waste campaign run by the UK government’s waste reduction advisory body, WRAP.  

And now Oxfam has released rankings of the best and worst places to eat around the world.  Oxfam’s Max Lawson adds another brilliant quote:

Basically, if you arrive from Mars and design a food system, you probably couldn’t design a worse one than what we have today on Earth”.


Flashback Friday

Every Friday I’ll be looking to my To Be Read pile to unearth classic development reading gems that I probably should have read years ago.  Never too late!  


This Friday the plan is to delve into an oldy-but-a-goody in the realm of institutional analysis: The Samaritan’s Dilemma:  The Political Economy of Development Aid.  This book from 2005 sheds some pretty brilliant insight on the reasons why development aid doesn’t work as effectively as it could.  It starts by showing that development, in true complicated human-being fashion,  involves situations where contributions from multiple actors are required to produce joint outcomes (aka collective action).  But lo and behold, there are a range of “collective-action problems” that hinder the achievement of development.  There may be missing or asymmetric information, principal-agent problems, or motivation problems.  

The Samaritan’s Dilemma is a key motivation problem.  Do-gooders face a dilemma when they are trying to help improve development outcomes by encouraging behaviour change, but the aid recipients are savvy to the fact that the donors are samaritans who will help no matter, so they have no incentive to change their behaviour.  Ahh, utility-maximising man strikes again!

But for Gibson, Andersson, Ostrom and Shivakumar, perverse incentives are not just a dilemma that international development actors have to face; the international development assistance system is a complex web of relationships that can actually generate these peverse incentives.  One example of this is the relationships between a donor government agency, a recipient government agency, and the contractor:

There are inherent contradictions between the incentives that consultants face in promoting ownership, and the incentives they face in retaining control of a project. Control over project decisions may produce positive short-term project results that please Sida, but contractors’ control may also compromise the prospects for sustainability.

The authors also look at the role of donor agency staff, and their role in ensuring sustainability.  Essentially, they need to learn about what makes development programs sustainable by seeing projects through from start to finish or by being able to be involved in tracking the progress of projects they worked on in earlier stages of their careers.  A suggestion to ramp up incentives for staff to focus on sustainability the book puts forward is basing career advancement on past participation in successful projects.  Hmmm…not sure how I feel about this one, but I have my own incentives at play there!

The book ends with 6 areas that deserve the attention of aid agencies:

  • Be aware of the role of incentives – for example, within the donor agency the pressure to disburse money quickly will mean that recipients will learn to only pitch proposals that allow the donor to meet that objective money (hello infrastructure project, you’re just what we’re looking for), which means the long-term institutional change work never gets a look in.
  • Pay attention to the nature of the good involved – we should go beyond just outputs and shovelling money out, to analyse the underlying collective-action problem that we are trying to fix.
  • Focus on how ownership is related to sustainability – real ownership and participation can help prevent free-riding and encourage collective action (miracle!)
  • Examine how learning is encouraged inside donor agencies, at both an individual and organisational level.
  • Be aware of the role of consultants.
  • Oh yeah, and put beneficiaries first!

Blogs I Follow

Development Headspace

A reading space collating notes and links on international development and aid.