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July 24, 2015

Letting People Speak: Tales of Traveling Through India to Listen to the Poor

Each year, donors around the world spend over US$200 billion in aid for emergency response and global development. They do this with the intention of improving the lives of individuals and communities suffering from abject poverty, food insecurity, poor health, violations of their human rights, violent conflict, or natural disaster. Yet despite the commendable efforts of the global community, there are still millions of people around the world that remain vulnerable.

In a recent blog called Managing Confirmation Bias in Stakeholder Engagement, I discussed how consultation with various stakeholder groups can inject energy into a corporate strategy and help members of the organization realize opportunities for growth. A similar approach can be applied to improve how developmental programs are crafted and monitored. The development of a tool by which we can authoritatively and regularly assess the views of the poor would allow us to co-innovate funding programs that align with the needs of the intended beneficiaries of developmental aid.

Born from the guiding values of the GlobeScan Foundation to Let Everyone Speak, the Survey of the Poor aims to let the poorest of the poor use their voice and be heard. Our goal is to help an often silent population tell their fellow countrymen and the international community what they need, what they want, and what interventions have made the largest impact on their lives. We have (and continue to) consult experts from various institutions around the world to help us with our instrument, and in order to make sure that we are not vulnerable to a narrow frame of mind before rolling out the project on a global scale, we have initiated an exploratory pilot phase of the project in India.

So, I packed my bag and travelled to India to conduct focus groups with the poor.

We traveled from the slums of New Delhi to the once prosperous and regal Kolkata, from the Jharkhand capital city of Ranchi to the remote and tribal village of Gumla. As a convoy of curious researchers, we travelled east to west along the Golden Quadrilateral Highway from one of the oldest inhabited cities, Patna, to the even more ancient city of Varanasi. We spoke to slum dwellers, tribal elders, activists, social workers, professors, economists, journalists and government councilors about the definition of poverty and the life of those that reside within its borders.

One of our biggest learnings when speaking to those working and living within impoverished communities is that the conceptualization of poverty is referential in nature, and very much dependent on what people believe it means to “be without”. A tribal woman from outside Kolkata, who was jailed for six months in retaliation for advocacy, spoke of poverty as the lack of understanding of basic human rights. A man who emerged from life in a slum outside of Ranchi spoke of poverty as an excess of shame and a lack of dignity. A young man who provides a free tutoring service in the rural villages outside of Patna, who himself had to forgo a proper education in order to provide for his family, spoke of poverty as a lack of access to high quality education. A former slum dwelling man from outside of Delhi spoke fervently of poverty as a lack of food, while a woman in the red corridor jungle spoke of poverty as a lack of nutrition. A man from Varanasi, who lost substantial wealth in a very short period of time, spoke of poverty as the lack of choice.

The breadth of views on the definition of poverty alone was overwhelming. The diversity of perspectives we encountered when discussing the lives of those living within its borders were even more so. It was an incredibly humbling experience.

Importantly, the conversations challenged the way we think about poverty and our approach to the design and implementation of the Survey of the Poor. Much like how consultation with key stakeholders can free an organization from a narrow (and often biased) thinking process, our consultation with some of India’s poor pushed us to reorient our thinking and develop a stronger, more relevant framework for the project. We have a better foundational understanding for the project and more importantly, realize how important the Survey of the Poor is to those who are vulnerable. We are empowered and inspired to maintain a dedicated and unwavering focus on the project.

Please enjoy some photos from my trip below, with our partners at Cvoter India.