Chris Blattman

Do development workers underestimate the poor? The survey evidence

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I give you, perhaps, the best and deepest piece of analysis I’ve ever read in a World Bank report. Timothy Taylor explains it nicely:

What do development experts think that the poor believe, and how does it compare to what the poor actually believe? For example, development experts were asked if they thought individuals in low-income countries would agree with the statement: “What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me.”  The development experts thought that maybe 20% of the poorest third would agree with this statement, but about 80% actually did. In fact, the share of those agreeing with the statement in the bottom third of the income distribution was much the same as for the upper two-thirds–and higher than the answer the development experts gave for themselves!

wdr 1

It’s from the new World Development Report, and I thank Tyler Cowen for the pointer. Here’s the report:

Dedicated, well-meaning professionals in the field of development—including government policy makers, agency officials, technical consultants, andfrontline practitioners in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors—can fail to help, or even inadvertently harm, the very people they seek to assist if their choices are subtly and unconsciously influenced by their social environment, the mental models they have of the poor, and the limits of their cognitive bandwidth.

164 Responses

  1. The World Development Report goes on to state, “Perhaps the most pressing concern is whether development professionals understand the circumstances in which the beneficiaries of their policies actually live and the beliefs and attitudes that shape their lives …” If development professionals do not understand some of the most fundamental beliefs of the poor, a major shift is needed in the institution of international development. We need more development professionals with personal, first-hand experience with poverty. I do not mean someone who has worked for the World Bank in Nairobi for a year, I mean someone who has spent many years living in Kibera, for example. I understand that this is easier said than done. It seems easier, however, to teach a person with a true understanding of poverty the technical skills needed to work in development than to teach a person with a Masters Degree in international development about the true meaning, realities, and implications of living in poverty. (For disclosure, I am currently in a Master of Development Practice program, which is very enriching, but not a substitute for experience living in a developing nation.)

  2. The weird thing is, I’m a reasonably functional adult human in a 1st world country, and I’d answer “no” in a heartbeat. 15 years of a chronic illness makes it very clear where the power lies.

  3. I’m with Afrophile. I think these statistics are shocking and so it is good to get them circulated. But don’t for one moment underestimate the degree to which the poor people who were surveyed answered according to how they thought would be most advantageous to them.

  4. Afrophile has summed it up very nicely. Point (a) leads to planning. (b) leads to planning. (c) leads to planning. (d) leads to planning.

  5. Hi Afrophile – do you have any “data” to support your “assertions”? especially (c) and (d), which are not in any way suggested by these results

  6. I’d say the statement is accurate–development workers (and researchers) most certainly underestimate the poor–but not only in the way implied by this excerpt.

    This result suggest (a) development “experts” underestimate poor people’s sense of their own agency; (b) development “experts” overestimate their own knowledge about poor people, which seems to undermine their own pretensions of “expertise” about “development”; (c) development researchers underestimate people’s ability to understand the broader context in which condescending survey questions are asked, and answer in ways that are more likely to redound to their benefit, and therefore (d) overestimate the extent to which survey data reflect some sort of objective truth about the world instead of mere data points in the repeating bargaining game of resources and information that goes on between development workers, researchers, and “beneficiaries”.

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