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

July 20, 2011 8 By admin

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.