We have no idea what poor people do

I was just reading a post from development economist Ed Carr’s blog, where he reflects on a book he wrote almost five years ago. Reflection is a pretty depressing excercise for any academic, but Carr seems to remain positive about his book.

He sums it up in three points:

“1. Most of the time, we have no idea what the global poor are doing or why they are doing it.
2. Because of this, most of our projects are designed for what we think is going on, which rarely aligns with reality
3. This is why so many development projects fail, and if we keep doing this, the consequences will get dire”

Well, yeah. This is a huge problem. In academics, we filter the experiences of the poor through a lens of academic frameworks, which we haphazardly impose with often no consultation with our subjects. Granted, this is likely inevtiable, but when designing public health interventions, it helps to have some idea of what the poorest of the poor do and why or our efforts are doomed to fail.

I remember a set of arguments a few years back on bed nets. Development and public health people were all upset because people were seen using nets for fishing. The reaction, particularly from in country workers was that poor people are stupid and will shoot themselves in the foot at any opportunity.

I couldn’t really understand the condescension and was rather fascinated that people were taking a new product and adapting it to their own needs. Business would see this as an opportunity and would seek to figure out why people were using nets for things other than malaria prevention and attempt to develop some new strategy to satisfy both needs (fishing and malaria prevention) at once. Academics simply weren’t interested.

To work with the poor, we have to understand them and understanding them requires that we respect their agency. If we don’t do this, we risk alienating the people we seek to help.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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