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July 20, 2011

Why do we know so little about how poor people 'do' development?

July 20, 2011
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I’ve just been reading the draft of a review by Charlotte Sterrett of climate change adaption experiences in South Asia. It’s great, and I’ll women in developmentlink to it when it’s published, but one conclusion set me thinking more widely:

‘While autonomous adaptation is likely to become more common and widespread than planned adaptation, most research and policy dialogue so far has focused on the latter. Research across a number of related areas to better understand the drivers of autonomous adaptation would benefit the region’.

This observation crops up again and again – people and communities take action for themselves on a range of issues from finance to livelihoods to dealing with shocks or climate change, but we know little about how they do it. Often the key players are barely on the official development radar – families, neighbours, religious institutions or grassroots organizations such as burial societies and savings groups.

Some examples, in addition to climate change adaptation:

Finance: a fascinating study of how poor families in Bangladesh, India and South Africa manage their money found that even people living on $1-$2 a day typically save about 25% of their income and none of the 250 households studied used fewer than four types of financial instrument over the course of the year (most of them invisible to the eyes of either the authorities or finance companies, let alone aid donors).

Research on the food price crisis shows that during an actual shock, state initiatives are often much less important to poor people than their own social coping mechanisms as individuals, communities or through local institutions like churches

The same is true in most natural disasters – by the time the guys with sniffer dogs fly in, tailed by the TV cameras, local people and organizations will have already done most of the life-saving.

women farmersWhy does this matter? Firstly because it would help correct the negative stereotypes of passivity and aid dependence that so misrepresent the reality of poor people’s lives. But also because if we understand what people do for themselves, we can design aid responses to strengthen and complement (and not undermine) them. Portfolios of the Poor, the wonderful book that emerged from the finance study, sought to identify the financial products lacking from the indigenous ‘portfolio’ of poor people, so that financial institutions could fill the gaps. We need to replicate that approach on a range of other issues.

But why do we know so little about what poor people do for themselves? Probably because we don’t ask or try to find out – the money and energy goes on evaluating aid donor and NGO performance, i.e. the official part of the story, largely to the exclusion of the (often more important) autonomous part.

Surely we could change that fairly easily, e.g. by insisting that any evaluation also studies what people and communities do when the official aid world is absent? I’d be interested in hearing other examples of this phenomenon, along with examples of Portfolios of the Poor-style research into autonomous action on ‘our’ (i.e. official development) issues.


  1. What’s cheering, though, is that ultimately ‘we’ do not figure much on the radar of poor people -hence even the stereotypes of what we think of them are really of very little consequence to them… learned this when living in Lesotho, a case of completely misconceived development in the early 1990s, and being a journalist there. A better grounding for subsequently working in development than most – certainly keeps me humble!!!!! (Of course it’s not an excuse not to try to improve the ‘fit’ between what their realities are, and the resources ‘we’ command which can potentially help.)

  2. Good provocative post. I have some views,may be a trifle cynical, on why this (not knowing) happens.

    1. We, and by that I mean all development actors NGOs, Government and donors, don’t bother to find out. That is perhaps because we have a superiority complex and feel that WE know better.

    2. We tend to deal with development mainly through formal mechanisms and structures. In real life there are a number of informal and ‘aformal’ systems and institutions that interact with people’s lives. We tend to ignore them, at our peril. In fact my observation has been that in chronic poverty stricken areas, one finds that formal mechanisms have actually crumbled or are dysfunctional.

    3. By admitting that poor know how to do development, we stand a risk of dealing ourselves out of the equation – no one quite likes shooting oneself in the foot.

    I could go on but dont want a comment to be longer than the post. Suffice to say that this and other such reasons are the basis of my belief that

    1. in most humanitarian situations development actors don’t really save lives. People save themselves.

    2. in most development situations, development actors, don’t cause development. They just happen to be there at the periphery (sometimes a bit more involved)..

  3. A must read on this topic:

    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.

    This research monograph and practical tool set details the norms of self-help and mutual assistance that can enhance aid researchers’ and practitioners’ understanding of how resources are generated and shared within a community.

    Read more at:

  4. Often it’s not only that we don’t ask poor people, but that poor people aren’t stupid enough to tell us about the dodges and unofficial methods they use to survive. People are used to keeping authorities – which is how NGOs are often seen – in the dark.

    Living on a low income in the UK, I was struck by the astounding number of ways people managed to get things cheap or free, avoided paying tax, bills or rent, bought smuggled beer and tobacco, worked ‘under the table’ or without correct visas. They sure as hell weren’t going to tell researchers about it. Why would you expect people in poor countries to do so?

  5. @ Sam Buchanan:

    Very true that people do amazing, brilliant, under-the-table things to survive. And as an anthropologist or scholar observing those thing…do we compromise their safety (or ability) in writing about these things that are against the law, even with the idea of writing it for the “greater good” of the poor?

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