Are poor people the best experts on poverty?

A series of conversations in recent weeks have made me think a bit harder about the uses and abuses of testimony/first hand experience. First up, the launch of the World Bank book, Moving Out of Poverty at the ODI the other week (see my perhaps over the top review of the book back in March), where I was a ‘discussant’ (horrible word).

MOOP is full of the kinds of unforgettable quotes that NGOs will be using for years. Here’s a sample:

– In Colombia, ‘Poverty winds around people like a python, so they are unable to breath’
– After a malaria outbreak, ‘A shadow of sorrow prevailed in the village. Even those who did not die became angry and mentally disturbed. The villagers lost interest in work.’
– In Andhra Pradesh ‘Like dogs at burial grounds, government officials look for money’

But Caroline Harper, of ODI, took issue with the book’s almost exclusive reliance on the testimony of poor people. Researchers asked people how they had got out of poverty and not surprisingly 75% or so said they did so thanks to their own initiative. The book pretty much takes that on trust and concludes (caricaturing a bit) that helping budding entrepreneurs is the best way forward. But what if they had asked their neighbours about the reasons of success? Somehow I think they would have got different answers with more emphasis on luck, connections, cheating etc.

This is verging on breaking some kind of NGO taboo, since we tend to stress the superiority of participation, consultation and the witness of people living in poverty (for the case for the validity of testimony see here). But Caroline (an anthropologist by training) was brave enough to conclude ‘the individual is not always the best expert on their own life’. Here’s an excerpt from her blog on the meeting:

‘The ability of ‘the poor’ (or indeed any of us) to define the impact of systemic discrimination and social orders in our lives is often limited, as social norms are all encompassing and determine how we see the world in which we live. 

We – probably most of you reading this blog – are so used to travel that we forget how much it helps us reflect on who we are and how we live. We are made more aware of ourselves in relation to others by stepping out of our own communities, and see our own lives as if from a distance.  If you never step out of your social norm, how can you know how your life is shaped; how it may be different? 

Therefore, I have real concerns about allowing self definition to drive the methodology and indeed the conclusions of this book, and I disagree with its claim that ‘the individual is the expert on her own life’. I understand the intention of this sentence, with so many ‘development experts’ already telling the poor what to do, but individuals do need a wider perspective to understand and indeed change their own life.’

All very convincing, but then last week I gave a speech to a hall full of Spanish development NGOs in which, among other things, I urged them to see urbanization and migration as positive contributors to development, avoiding the ‘peasant romanticism’ that is so common among aid agencies. Afterwards I was accosted by a very determined activist who made a classic ‘false consciousness’ argument for why so many children of peasant farmers want to migrate to the cities. They may think that the town is better, she said, but if we only invested more in agriculture, they would all happily stay on the farm. It got a bit heated.

Deepa Narayan, the author of Moving Out of Poverty, found that only 4% of the children of farmers expressed a wish to stay on the land, which fits with my own conversations over the years, so you need a quite breathtaking level of self belief/arrogance to think the other 96% are simply misguided. Who to believe, poor farmers and their kids, or a peasant romantic living in Madrid? No contest. Even with Caroline’s caveats, we should still start by listening to the voices of the poor, even if we then qualify what we hear with other evidence. Maybe we should distinguish more clearly between the areas where testimony is most reliable (what does living in poverty feel like? what actually happened to you? what are your desires for the future?) and areas where more supporting evidence is needed (how did you manage to get out of poverty? what held you back? why have things changed/stayed the same? should we spend the money on roads, schools or irrigation?)

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12 Responses to “Are poor people the best experts on poverty?”
  1. Lehlohonolo Phadima

    very interesting indeed. I’m particularly taken by the kind of questions you think we shouldn’t ask, for instance, “should we spend the money on roads, schools or irrigation?.”

    The thing is, i’m from a school of thought that puts much value in participatory methods that affords communities to rank their needs. And if one is to consider your argument above, perhaps we should tread careful with such methods. As in seek supportive evidence.

    These questions are important in my work for i’m lately more interested in facilitating alternative livelihoods for natural resource users so that we can offset the pressure on dwindling resource populations.

  2. Ken Smith

    Sorry don’t want to lower the tone , but this reminds me of heated arguments with my wife. I now always try and say ” I feel like I always do the washing up ” rather than ” I always do the washing up”. What we feel is really important and can’t be argued or disagreed with but we do need supporting evidence too

  3. James Stevenson

    Brave to take this on, but definitely worth a good debate.

    All of us are rational, but we have a “bounded rationality” – shaped by social norms as Caroline Harper points out, as well as miriad other aspects of our experience of life.

    And despite what many economists would still have us believe, we are not all out there trying to maximise a hypothetical function that captures the experiences of all the possible lives we could live.

    Herbert Simon coined the term “Satisficing” (satisfy + suffice) behaviour – we take decisions based on our criteria for adequacy. We usually can’t possibly know enough to make judgements about what is “best”, only what is “good enough”.

    So the kids aren’t satisfied with the prospect of working on the farm, and think things will be better in the city. They don’t know for sure, but they have some information about it (their father or mates have gone and they’re earning a wage) and they make their own judgement about it. It’s not a false conciousness argument to suggest that these people are operating with imperfect information – we all are.

    Let’s test whether this counts as ’empowerment’ – the only way that Duncan is going to be able to convince a room full of NGO workers that migration is a development outcome…

    As Ros Eyben and others write:
    “Empowerment happens when individuals and organised groups are able to imagine their world differently and to realise that vision by changing the relations of power that have been keeping them in poverty.”

    I’ve heard Duncan say in the past: “Why doesn’t Oxfam buy them bus tickets?”. Well, the kids wondering about migrating to the cities have imagined their world differently – this meets the first requirement for empowerment. But the solution they’ve settled on does not address the relations of power that have been keeping them in poverty – they’ve just replaced them with an alternative set of power relations in another place.

    That might be a good thing for them, it might be a bad thing, but only they will know, and only after they’ve done it. Which suggests that the only way to know is to ask them, but only after they’ve migrated.

    Sod romanticism though – let’s figure out what works for migrants and under which conditions.

  4. Duncan

    Great comments James, and bounded rationality and the link to empowerment are really helpful concepts. On the migration question, isn’t swapping one set of power relations (and little hope of progress) for a different and better set of power relations with more hope, however illusory, a worthwhile act which we should support? Or should the pilgrim fathers have stayed in England and fought for their freedom there? Your conclusion on buying them bus tickets – that we can only know whether it’s a good idea with hindsight, after they’ve done it – is true of most development interventions, but it doesn’t really help us make decisions in the present does it?! Surely we can triangulate subjective views of would be migrants with what research shows on the human impact of migration and come to a view?

  5. Thoughtful ‘outside of the box’ inquiry, thank you Duncan! I like to believe that, unless mentally incapacitated, the money poor are experts on solving their problems.

    The likes of ‘Barefoot College’ take that into account in their philosophy of there being no development experts but resource persons, which seems to work. I also think KIVA, Grameen Bank and others that seem to directly engage the money poor do work.

    Wouldn’t development ‘experts’ best help tweaking the money poors’ ideas/approaches? Probably more so than money, i think humility and engagement are crucial to success.

    Thank you for thinking outside the box.

  6. James Stevenson

    Thanks for responding Duncan. Absolutely agree that we should take subjective views of would be migrants and triangulate that with what research tell us about the human impact of migration. But in doing so the status of expert (about whether it is a likely to be a good thing for them to migrate) shifts from the would be migrants to us…

  7. Wayne Diamond

    I’d second James’ comments on both the bounded rationality of satificing individuals and the enabling condition of empowerment being a capacity to imagine your world differently.

    The broader point Caroline Harper makes is that context matters, and that often individuals are not fully aware of the socio-economic ontext that bound their knowledge, choices and actions. That is why mutli-method designs and triangulation are crtiical for social research. But triangulation does not mean convergence on an single objective truth – but rather the illumination of social phenomena from multiple valid perspectives. It’s not about getting at the truth, but seeing the bigger picture.

    Reading this blog I started thinking about citizen’ juries and other similiar exercises in deliberative democracy. Juries are presented with evidence from a range of sources, allowed to cross-examine the sources, and then deliberate upon their verdict. Applying this to the ‘bus ticket’ example, rather than simply buying young farmers tickets to the big city why not present them with the range of arguments for and against migration given by the so-called experts – along with the experiences of their peers (migrants and non-migrants). The bounded rationality becomes a little less bounded and a bit more rational. The deliberation process itself would reveal how contexualising evidence is weighted and evaluated (against pror knowledge and experience) during the decision-making process. Just a thought…

  8. Pablo Fregoso

    Interesante argumentación Sr. Duncan. Alain de Janvry ha estudiado la pobreza rural en México y considera también que la migración es una alternativa para salir de la pobreza. Por otra parte, si bien estoy de acuerdo en que los pobres no son los más indicados para ofrecer alternativas para salir de la pobreza, los tres principios que propone Deepa Narayan para orientar los esfuerzos para salir de la pobreza, son sin duda pertinentes y una una forma adecuada de sintetizar muchas de las inquietudes de los pobres. Lo felicito por “oxigenar” este tipo de discusiones.

  9. Glad to come in after these rich comments. I would like to add my vote to Duncan’s conclusion: start by listening. The minds of “experts” from “outside” are limited by bounded rationality, too, whatever amount of academic study or international travel we may have accumulated. As a matter of fact, many of today’s “poor” have done a different type of international travel, as refugees or migrants, or live in urban contexts full of information and opportunities for inter-subjectivity (meanings constructed in interaction with others). The “poor” know things “we” have no idea of, and which we may not even find out about because we don’t know which questions to ask…

  10. Duncan

    Just came across this nice quote on gender, India and the false consciousness debate from Martha Nussbaum:
    ‘If someone who has no property rights under the law, who has no education, who has no legal right to divorce, who will very likely be beaten if she seeks employment outside the home, says that she endorses traditions of modest, purity and self-abnegation, it is not clear that we should consider this the last word on the matter.’

  11. Claudia

    Hei Duncan,

    I wonder why do people think poor farmers in the poorest countries are different from the not-so-rich farmers in the rich countries? The farms are abandoned every year in the rich countries countries and their reasons are not different from the ones presented by the poor farmers.

    Here in Norway (like in other nations) domestic violence among Norwegians is pretty high in the rural areas. I can bet in Britain too. We are made of the same nature, farming is a heavy work, a work that sort of brutalize people’s nature. The city gives more than job offers and taped water, it presents the people with an entire net of safety…

    City people don’t like rural migrants. This is also a world fact, I believe.



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