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Were the 'Voices of the Poor' really heard?

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30

Robert Chambers,
Institute of Development Studies
Simon Maxwell

Robert Chambers said that there were 4 processes involved in 'Voices of the Poor':
i) Karen Brock's analysis of participation, which resulted in the publication of a paper ('A Review of Participatory Work on Poverty and Illbeing').
ii) A review of participatory poverty assessments, leading to the production of the book 'Can anyone hear us?' by the World Bank, jointly with a Cornell team.
iii)Consultations with the poor in 23 countries, using a standardised yet relatively open methodology (PRA type) looking at: ideas of well/ill-being; priorities; relationship with institutions; and gender relations.
iv) The World Development Report itself.

Chambers said it was difficult to determine whether these processes influenced the WDR. However the difference between Ravi Kanbur's draft of the WDR and the final version is not that great; the structure and the headings remained mainly the same.
- In terms of Brock's analysis, which was published by the World Bank, it did not have too much influence on the WDR - although it should have had. For example, the word 'livelihood' is only found 3 times in the report; instead the same simplistic focus on work/employment is used, missing out a livelihoods analysis.
- The effect of 'Can anyone hear us?' is hard to tell, although the emphasis on assets and security seems to have been incorporated into the WDR.
- There are some obvious ways in which the consultations exercise did influence the WDR: there are short quotes from the poor throughout the report - in green italics to make them stand out from the rest of the text. There are also text boxes where the content is drawn from the consultation.

How did 'the Voices of the poor' influence the WDR conceptually?

This is again a difficult question to answer. The language used is the same, but there is a certain circularity about the whole process, e.g. in asking people to define our concepts, such as ill- and well-being. However, the first sentence of the main text of the report, stating that poverty is a 'pronounced deprivation in well-being' opens up questions, not only on concepts such as 'deprivation' and 'well-being', that have never been opened up before. Such a definition of poverty implies an admission of the importance of going beyond economic measures in defining poverty and opens up for the inclusion of concepts such as vulnerability; exclusion; exposure to risks; and powerlessness. The implications of defining poverty as the opposite of well-being could be enormous. The emphasis on voicelessness and powerlessness in the WDR can also be traced by to 'Voices.'

The WDR was disappointing in that a number of things coming out of the 'Voices' exercise were missing:
- The importance of the police was left out, although often stressed in the consultations as an important factor keeping 'the poor' poor.
- Any focus on the 'bottom poor' is also left out from the report altogether, and they were also largely excluded from the consultation process.
- The body as an asset was not discussed, and in general the discussion of assets in the WDR does not reflect the importance assets have in the lives of poor people.
- The WDR also missed the opportunity to redefine 'development' with a heavy weighting from below: according to the poor there is not a lot needed in order to make a difference, whereas those in the middle range feel they need a lot more to improve their situation.
- Finally, the WDR missed the multi-dimensions of poverty, whereas in the 'Voices of the Poor' one chapter was devoted to each of issues such as livelihoods and assets; the body; gender relations; and security.

What other impacts did the 'Voices of the Poor' have?

It is hard to tell whether the exercise had any impact on the poor participants; one might say that it has made them more able to influence and analyse. There could of course be costs as well, both in valuable time lost and in expectations raised but not necessarily met. It is equally hard to determine the impact on communities. We do know that in Brazil the report was used to force local authorities to improve services to its communities, but this is an exception. In countries such as Bulgaria where little participatory research has been done before, the consultation helped build up the participatory research capacity. 'The Voices of the Poor' seems to even have had an impact on the World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn who recently proclaimed that poverty is the 'central issue of our time'. The question about impact of the 'Voices of the Poor' poses another important question though: Isn't listening to, and repeating, voices just legitimising and not changing? Could one consider the voices as disembodied - as purely cosmetic to make the World Bank look good? The World Bank has made claims to being 'the listening bank' - but does this go anything but skin deep?

This raises a new question of not missing issues. Chambers would suggest a chapter 12 added, tackling amongst other things the issues of ethical investment, social audit and introspection on World Bank power and its effects. The real crunch is for all individuals in powerful positions - or indeed all individuals involved in development in some way or other - to start doing things differently.

Simon Maxwell initiated the discussion by claiming maybe Chambers had been a bit too hard on himself in terms of contribution to the WDR. One could take the increased focus on assets etc. as reflecting the importance of participatory thinking.

It was commented that in the early discussions of the consultation exercise, it was debated whether to do fewer countries to allow for better follow-up on community level. However, the World Banks' determination for world scope won in the end. It was also suggested that maybe the word 'consultation' was more suitable than 'voice', as the label 'voice' can be problematic.

The chair pointed to the rather conservative nature of the WDR; although the issue of redistribution was included there was no real radical agenda coming out of it. A speaker pointed out that although the World Bank is making strong play on the need to tackle inequality, this did not come out in the consultation exercise. Why? Were the wrong questions being asked or did the political agenda come in the way? Chambers replied that the exercise did express the poor's resentment of the way they are treated by the rich. However, this did not come out as strongly as it could have. Furthermore, the exclusion of the role of the police was commented on. Could the reason why the police was not included be due to censorship? Getting into police matters is intruding into the internal political domain; this can be far too sensitive.

The question whether the exclusion of the 'bottom poor' compromises the whole exercise was raised. Chambers did not agree to this, although he recognised it as a major challenge. In some cases the bottom poor were included and maybe one could say they were not so much excluded as not heavily represented. The process has sharply identified the fact that most development programmes are not taking the 'bottom poor' into account.

The chair commented that all this talk of 'the poor' makes it look like poor people always agree and have the same priorities. This is of course not the case; Chambers pointed to gender differences as a typical example of this. Gender relations is an area of much tension, and the potential for enhancing well-being through improving gender relations is tremendous. Governments as a whole have few or no programmes on parenting or gender relations, although these two areas are crucial to human well-being.

An important question was raised: How can the 'Voices' process be continued and the outcomes linked to policy processes? Chambers replied that the methodology guide is being used and modified world-wide, leaving considerable potential for national contributions.


During this event, Robert Chambers discussed the four different processes involved in 'Voices of the Poor' and said it was difficult to determine whether these processes influenced the WDR.