What do poor people want?

Poor people make rational decisions on their lives and those of family members. Politicians that want to cut expenses on development aid, policy makers and those who implement projects should work having in mind those decisions and not just work according to their own beliefs.

The most difficult part of development work is to think differently (apart from your own background or current discourses) and to really listen to and see the people you work with. Starting my career in Uganda, I experienced many bad examples of westerners thinking that they knew what was best for the poor. Being aware of these pitfalls, I fell into many myself: for example, making appointments for interviews at 1.30pm, until my Ugandan colleague asked me if I thought these interviewees had a watch – they didn’t.

Also policy makers in development issues and politicians work according to their expectations of what poor people want or need, but do they really know? According to Banerjee’s and Duflo’s book Poor Economics (Arm & Kansrijk in Dutch), they don’t. Their research may help answer a lot of questions around what is working in development cooperation.

Spend money on fun items instead of basic ones
A well fed child (already in its mother’s womb) will be healthier during the rest of his life, and even more successful in school and will earn more having a better job. However, poor people that get a little more money often do not spend it on more or healthier food; instead, they spend it on more tasteful food. Or on anything that makes life less boring (a television, a cell phone). Visitors from developed countries are often surprised about why Africans buy cell phones instead of basic needs for their families. But people everywhere are quite the same: we like a good taste (no matter if it’s healthy – look at all those overweight Americans..) and we all like to spend our leisure time having fun. Perhaps, this holds even more true when you live in a village with as few as 20 others, and you are unemployed for most of the year.

Spend money on treatment rather than on prevention
To be healthier and have fewer children under 5 years of age die, it helps a great deal to use a mosquito net (in areas where malaria occurs), have access to safe water, and get vaccinated as a child. Relatively cheap and easy to organise one would say. Still lots of poor people – who do have access to these prevention items – don’t use them, and at the same time spend a whole lot of money on treatment of illnesses. It doesn’t seem sensible. But looking into the  psychology of humans: people tend to postpone actions (look at all those Europeans that pay for their gym, but never turn up). Making time-consuming decisions that require every-day actions – put chlorine in the water, use a net, get your child to the nurse (who is  – in developing countries – not present for half of the time, or not educated for the job anyway), go to the gym – you will miss out sometimes, because of more urgent or joyful matters.

What’s more, as an individual it is hard to see the use of some health care programs (because it will be worth on the long run, or you lack the information on what is actually good prevention), so why put so much effort in it?

 School only for smart kids
Every extra year of education means a more successful life in terms of work and pay. Again, it seems very useful to be in school as long as possible for every child. Then why do so many children in developing countries miss out on school, or drop-out before they have finished primary school?  Many westerners assume that the school system in Africa is like ours, so we do know it is important. However, in former colonies the (public) school system is still based on educating only the smartest children. The rest can’t keep up with the pace and the curriculum. No wonder parents, teachers, and the children themselves are not motivated to go to school if they don’t belong amongst the smartest.

The rational choice of having a baby
The Abstain, Be Faithfull, use a Condom or Die (or Do it yourself, as more positive Ugandans filled in D) campaign together with making contraceptives available, is the common way for family planning programmes. Christian and American funded programmes often only promote abstinence for youth and being faithful for married couples. The latter doesn’t seem like a smart method, knowing that the USA has the most teen-age pregnancies of the developed world. What does work: programmes that give incentives to girls (money or a school uniform) OR inform girls that sugar daddies were 5 times more likely to be hiv positive both turned out into more girls in school and fewer girls fall pregnant in their teens.

Give a nudge
So what could be opportunities for effective development programmes? Give people a nudge by providing basic needs easily: e.g. chlorine is available next to the tap or already in tap water, iron is mixed with principal food to prevent anaemia. Also in Europe  some advocate to have a fat tax to unhealthy food for instance. In terms of education projects that allows less smart children to catch-up in different classes or during holidays, were very effective (and programmes on supplying school materials weren’t). For family planning: if a women can decide for herself, she will have less children and (very important for her health and her education with all effects that goes along)  have children at a later age.

Avoid your theoretical discourse
In short, the advice for everyone involved in development cooperation is obvious: first make clear how poor people decide and why, before implementation of what you think is best. And complement your activities to it. What’s more,  since a blog is way too short too explain all nuances, options and pitfalls: read Poor economics yourself!

This blog is based on part 1 of the book and research Poor Economics: A radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty, Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2011). The Dutch title is Arm & Kansrijk.

To be continued.


5 Responses to “What do poor people want?”
  1. Christine Onimbo schreef:

    Poor people need to be made conscious of the underlying root causes contributing to negative development response/initiatives and the same addressed.
    Root causes contributing to poverty are either ignored or compromised, in development issues. Reference:
    kenyalaw.org kenyalaw.org

    • Inemarie schreef:

      Dear Christine,

      I guess that when development cooperation was really demand-driven many of those mistakes in development cooperation were never made. However, it’s good to have a notion of what works in general for everyone: NGO, politician or ”target group”.
      Thanks for your share anyway!

  2. Rui Martins schreef:

    Poor people need to give their life how they understand what is a good life for them, whith their own knowledge and culture, and we should to understand what is this before to want to help them to develop (what is this?), only if they want to it and to where they want to go. We have not rights to impose them our way of life, or our development society idea, to change cultures and others ways of life.

  3. Remi Akinmade schreef:

    Your article is of interest, but in my veiw, any development worker base his or her project on baseline or formative research, analysis and people oriented programs with community involvement at every stage..
    People may be poor or disadvantaged, yet they are full of untapped traditional knowledeg and wisdom..

    We need support of all stakeholders; Internatopnal, local, community based organizations, Association, policy makers, political leaders and differents groups in the community for development to be sussessful be it education, health and social development. This is were serious positive advocacy or lobbying is of utmost importance.

    The poor or disadvataged know what they want out of life but let’s strart with the basics they humbly always request; food security, water, housing, health, education and farmiong supprt and micro-credit or financing.

    • Inemarie schreef:

      Any development worked should base projects on research, on demand driven, on ownership. But unfortunately -looking at the practice – there are many examples where development programmes do not take these basics into account – and not always on purpose (because the workers THINK they know what their targeot group wants)…

Leave A Comment