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.