All too often, the world’s poorest denizens are dealt the added blow of being invisible to their wealthier neighbors, governments, and even many of the humanitarian groups keen on helping them. Furthering worsening the plight of the poor, according to Claire Melamed of Aeon, is the shocking lack of information about what they think, feel, and experience everyday. Without these data, it is more difficult to connect to the human side of poverty, let alone to devise evidence-based solutions to alleviating it.
The World Bank recently did a brave and very revealing piece of research. They asked their own staff to what extent they imagined poorer and richer people in three countries would agree with the statement: ‘What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me’. Bank staff predicted that around 20 per cent of poor people would agree with the statement.
In fact, more than 80 per cent of poor people felt that what happened to them in the future depended on their own efforts – four times as many as the World Bank staff had predicted, and about the same proportion as richer people. It’s worth letting that sink in. Here we have staff in one of the most powerful development agencies in the world, freely assuming that the people whom they are employed to work with, and for, feel passive and helpless when in fact the opposite is the case.
If more people — from the average citizen to policy makers and development agencies — knew exactly what poor people believed and how they behaved, a lot more progress could be made towards eliminating this scourge once and for all.
These perceptions have consequences. Consider the recent vogue for ’empowerment’ programmes. On the face of it, they make sense only if people don’t already feel like the captains of their own destinies. If, for example, World Bank staff had been right and just 20 per cent of poor people agreed that they had control over their own futures, then aid agencies might have a point in trying to run programmes to get those figures up. If it’s 80 per cent, you can probably skip that step and just get on with the education, the electrification, the provision of running water and so on, that actually allow people to express their own fully-developed sense of individual agency. Only numbers – and the sense of scale they provide – can tell you which is right.
In addition to undermining effective approaches towards poverty, this lack of perspective likely explains why poor people across the globe suffer from widespread stigmatization, being perceived as lazy, irresponsible, and degenerate — rather than markedly ambitious, hardworking, and hopeful.
To be sure, there is survey data out there, from the likes of Afrobarometer, Latinobarómetro, and various U.N. agencies, to name but a few. But the scope and scale of these efforts are limited, and what comparatively little information is gleaned is — allegedly — overlooked for opportunistic and political reasons.
Numbers have power, and finding out what people think in a systematic way (or making use of the data that already exist) might lead to some uncomfortable moments for donors and aid agencies.
Agencies operate under certain incentives, and they aren’t always about the poorest people. Think about who the development projects actually have to sell themselves to. Think about the market pressures they face. Commercial companies obviously need to know what their customers want, and how happy they are with the services they receive. Governments in democratic countries also need to know what people think. During elections, when voters, for a brief moment, are sovereign, political parties, the press and lobby groups all commission polls to demonstrate what people care about and why politicians need to listen if they want to be elected – and these polls drive policy, for good and for ill.
These incentives are strikingly absent in the relationship between donors and the people who are the beneficiaries of their programmes. While most individual aid workers do care, very much, about the people they work with and for, the actual structure of the aid business offers few reasons for anyone to worry about what aid recipients think or want. Staff in aid agencies need to think about what their funders want to pay for. For their own performance reviews, they need to think about how to demonstrate that what they are doing is achieving the best possible results with the smallest amount of money. So the incentives for spending money on expensive surveys to find out what representative samples of poor people think of their operations are just not there.
Self-interest aside, a lot of aid organizations fail to utilize or seek out data for the simple reason that most pollsters are private corporations, and thus charge for access to their finding. More needs to be done to make this valuable information more easily available, and perhaps aid groups should be more willing, if financially possible, to foot the bill for these data. We can accomplish a lot of good if we actually understand who we are helping and how best to help them.
Consider the following finding:
More recently, a survey run by the United Nations and my organisation, the Overseas Development Institute, asked 7.5 million people around the world a question about their priorities for themselves and their families. The top five priorities for poor people in poor countries included a lot that you would expect: health and education were up there, for example. But so were ‘an honest and responsive government’, better jobs, and reliable energy supplies. Protection from crime ranked high on the list, reflecting the deep, daily fear of violence and theft that are all too often part of the reality of poverty. And yet, as the British pioneer of people-centric development, Robert Chambers, once said to me, we’ve yet to see the development programme that gives people safes to help them protect their belongings.
Imagine how much more could be accomplished if findings like this become better known and utilized. In this Information Age, data has never been easier to collect, analyze, and apply. There is no reason why this should not apply to something as pivotal as helping other human beings.
What are your thoughts?