So the world is a complex system – what should aid agencies do differently?

April 19, 2012

Should Oxfam be collecting a million bras from the public and selling them? Time to cast your vote…

April 19, 2012

How poor people get through crises: some excellent 'rapid social anthropology' from IDS and the World Bank

April 19, 2012
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On Wednesday, I spoke at the launch of a new book, Living Through Crises: How the Food, Fuel and Financial Shocks Affect the Living through CrisesPoor, by Rasmus Heltberg, Naomi Hossain and Anna Reva. It’s a joint World Bank and IDS publication, also available for free online. I think it could prove quite influential.

The starting point for the book is that we live in a world increasingly characterized by shocks (economic, political, climatic), rather than steady incremental change, but there is a huge hole at the centre of our what this means for poverty. With a few exceptions (e.g. the early warning system on malnutrition), we have only the vaguest idea of how such shocks are affecting poor women, men and children in real time. Instead, the ‘poverty community’ relies on some decidedly blunt instruments – models (poverty rises by X million every time GDP falls by Y%) or household surveys with significant time lags. Moreover both these tools generally reveal little about the lived experience of being poor – the social exclusion, anger, shame, humiliation and fear that can lead to revolutions or despair. Yet through this fog of ignorance, policy makers and aid donors must take decisions in real time – what can be done?

Living through Crises tries to show how that gap can be filled, with 8 country case studies and a global synthesis on the impact of the multiple crises of food and fuel prices, and financial systems, that rocked numerous economies from 2008-11. The studies are both rigorous and qualitative (not an oxymoron, whatever some quants say) in what Robert Chambers in his excellent foreword terms an exercise in ‘rapid social anthropology’. The methodologies are varied, but typically involve focus group discussions, repeated over a period of months or years, in a sensitive, skilled effort to dig into the experience of poor people living at the sharp end of a global economy in turmoil.

What does this add to the traditional ways of exploring the impact of crises? Firstly, some surprises, for example that the informal sector is hit harder than the formal sector, even though a global economic slowdown hits international trade and finance first; that informal, local safety nets (religious organizations, communities, family and friends) are in general more significant sources of support than the state.

Second, this exercise in ‘deep listening’ identifies and fills some important gaps in our understanding – that indebtedness to microfinance organizations can become an acute burden in a crisis, or that intra-family violence (men on women, adults on kids) is likely to increase.
This approach identifies the importance of social capital and relationships: ‘marginalized and poor people with weak social capital experienced the most severe and irreversible hardships’. But it also points to the erosive nature of coping – for all their energy and invention in confronting shocks, poor people run down their assets as well as their stock of social capital, with knock-on consequences for their future well-being. Rapid social anthropology also identifies gender differences, for example in the impact of crises on the care economy, which are usually overlooked altogether by conventional analyses.

Food riots in Mozambique

Food riots in Mozambique

All this echoes Oxfam’s own faster (we published two years ago) but less in-depth qualitative research on the gender and wider impacts of the crises, and there is overlap in both past work and future plans (we are just starting a 10 country follow up to the qualitative work on food prices conducted with Naomi Hossain at IDS last year).

The book launch (in a venerable committee room at the House of Commons), generated some thought provoking discussion:

Role of the State: the research finds that the state is often ‘absent’ during a crisis. Rather than turn to the authorities, poor people turn to family and friends, their religious organizations, and other community structures. So does that mean we give up on state provision of social protection, crisis response etc etc? No. But we need to think differently. For example, adopt a ‘Portfolios of the Poor’ approach of researching what community ‘social coping’ mechanisms function well and support those, as well as identifying gaps that the state needs to fill directly; or identify which aspects of state provision are effective and back those – school feeding programmes emerged as really significant.

Beyond the state: but the research does suggest looking beyond the state and seeing how to cooperate with the other institutions that matter. What about providing disaster management training to religious leaders? Putting money into community savings schemes as a way of getting cash quickly into a shock-hit village? I blogged on a discussion with Robert Chambers on this a while back, and the ideas still make sense (at least to me).

The links to structural adjustment: Those of us who worked on structural adjustment programmes in the 80s and 90s recognized a lot of similarities with the social impact of (and response to) structural adjustment programmes – e.g. Caroline Moser’s work on their erosive impact in Ecuadorian shanty towns. The other link is that SAPs in some cases increased vulnerability to shocks, for example by liberalizing financial markets, privatizing state banks and thus reducing the range of levers available to governments.

More coverage of the launch in the Guardian.


  1. Thanks Duncan.
    I too enjoyed the launch, and think the study has great potential. I like the idea that the World Bank can say openly that in times of crisis ‘the state was absent’. That has potential to influence policy for UN and government donors.

    At the same time, states that had pre-existing safety net programmes like Serbia or Kazakhstan were better able to provide support to vulnerable groups. So it seems like a ‘both – and’. Perhaps there needs to be a greater, more deliberate emphasis on building informal social capital. This study certainly brings some rich understanding of just how informal social capital works, how valuable it is and how poor people experience it.

    I was also very struck by how the report identified local faith organisations as highly valuable in times of crisis. In some ways this is obvious, but it was interesting to see this come out in the report and the discussion on Tuesday. Perhaps there is more we can do to strengthen the resilience and capacity of these valuable faith organisations to be more effective in times of crisis. I suspect there is great potential for sustainability here.

  2. Low-wealth individuals and communities systemically mobilize resources (though often labeled “informally”) through a system of self-help and mutual assistance, which Wilkinson-Maposa and Fowler have coined as “horizontal philanthropy” or “philanthropy of community”. It is very important for development practitioners to recognize that emerging grassroots initiatives are born of this system, rather than just from external interventions, and to ensure that our support builds upon these systems, rather than bypassing or even thwarting them.

    Read more:

    Wilkinson-Maposa, S. & Fowler, A. (2009). The poor philanthropist I-IV: How and why the poor help each other. Cape Town: Southern Africa-United States Center for Leadership and Public Values.

  3. (Please use this version – couldn’t see an edit function to correct spelling… ) Thanks!

    Like the idea of rapid social anthropology… For me, anthropology as a process is too slow for the world of interventions and real-time data by itself is too temporary, so this approach gives us a half-way house between the two, and where adaptation and flexibility are important, I can see this approach gaining credibility quickly in organisations that want to build more resilience.

    Informal social capital and networks are important and will always be the invisible and priceless glue that bonds people/communities together at times of crisis, though I don’t think this points to a redundancy around the role of the state. The state is a sum of what individuals and their value systems make it – the mutuality, reciprocity and trust that individuals build between them is surely replicated in formal state structures? One doesn’t dilute the other, but mutually reinforces the value of both social capital and the role of the state in working together effectively. Suppose key is having access to the formal and the informal coping options, and having the choice.

    Sometimes, or all the time, the poor have to be resilient because they don’t have other choices…

  4. I really like the new scholarship of actually talking to a lot of people who are in the category of folks you’re trying to understand, rather than positing an overlapping generations model and tuning parameters to match statistics which were made up on the spot by the poor schmuck whose job it was to produce them.

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