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And Who Listens to the Poor?
A study focusing on how critical listening and adapting is in lifting people out of extreme poverty.
by Karishma Huda, Sandeep Kaur, Nicolina Lamhauge
When we think of the poor, we think in broad strokes. We think of a village devastated by a hurricane or a group of faceless beggars on the street or daily wage laborers huddled over a field. But the poor are not one entity. Far from it, they are Farida, who feared her dark skin led to a bad marriage, or Indu, a member of India's marginalized tribal community, or Sukhibala, whose husband will not let her work outside the house.
The voices of the poor are often forgotten when it comes to international development. These voices are often drowned out by the statistical analyses aid agencies use to understand and better the lives of those billion in this world most in need. An individual's unique life experiences and personality is just as crucial to determining whether she will escape from poverty as the nature of the aid she receives.
What if an aid program did take into account an individual's life history and her distinct level of motivation – much in the same way we do when thinking about people we know? What if we actually 'listened' to the poor? Would it change the way we view development?
Trickle Up did just that, experimenting with an innovative approach to livelihood creation, access to financial services and safety nets for the extreme poor – those who live on less than $1.25 a day. The ultimate goal was to graduate participants out of extreme poverty towards sustainable livelihoods and a better quality of life. The Trickle Up Ultra Poor Program pilot project was conducted in the Indian state of West Bengal in a joint initiative by the World Bank's Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) and the Ford Foundation.
For the first time in its over 30-year history, Trickle Up accompanied its assistance program with comprehensive case studies of 20 project participants who completed the India-based project in 2009. The case histories took into account a woman's early childhood, transition to adulthood, her experience of the assistance program, and as well, her lives nine months after the program ended. From these rich life histories, Trickle Up learned how the circumstances of one ultra-poor household can dramatically diverge from another.
Equally poor at the start was Sushila. But, unlike Indu, when she was young, she and her siblings all attended school for several years. As an adult, Sushila has been active in local politics and respected in her community, and her uncle is a village leader. Sushila had more resources to draw on than Indu—right from the start. Sushila was one of the three women for whom Trickle Up's program reinforced an already positive trajectory.
The life trajectory perspective also helps Trickle Up assess how a participant's individual resources combine with those offered by the program to improve her circumstances. Quantitative data from the baseline and end line of the pilot project shows that 86 percent of Trickle Up Ultra Poor Program pilot project participants 'graduated,' meaning they were active in their savings groups, had maintained or grown their livelihood assets and met other project benchmarks. But why did they graduate? How did the components of the program combine with their own efforts to create a positive outcome?
The pilot project led to additional findings that enabled Trickle Up to make important changes to its model. By 'listening' to its participants, Trickle Up now understands that field worker performance had a strong bearing on participant performance and not all field workers were equally effective. As a result, it has increased the training and support it provides to them and gives them more clearly defined goals. Another finding was that not all of the savings and credit groups in the pilot project continued after it ended as power imbalances led to infighting. Trickle Up has now changed the sequencing of its program such that the first thing women do upon joining the project is to begin saving in their groups, allowing more time for groups to mature.
The 'case study' approach also revealed the limitations of Trickle Up's programs and how difficult it is to make permanent changes to the lives of participants. By sitting down and 'listening' to participants Trickle Up understood that their lives are fluid, just as ours, and their feedback was a mere snapshot of their economic situation at that time. A virus could kill off the livestock they kept after the program ended or a health setback could drain a household's resources, for example, and the participant might find herself in just as dire a position, or even worse, than before she began the program.
Participants each have different starting points, based on the idiosyncrasies of their life histories. In working with the extreme poor, Trickle Up learned that it needed to 'listen' to them to understand how to customize the program to suit their individual needs. In this study, when program staff understood the unique idiosyncrasies of the participants, they were able to do such things as intervene in domestic disputes, provide additional training, or suggest lifestyle changes to promote better hygiene in the household. These changes helped participants realign their trajectories out of extreme poverty, with many realizing their potential to "graduate" to a better quality of life.
Ultimately, poverty has over a billion different faces, each one as unique as the next, each with strengths and weaknesses that can catalyze or inhibit their journeys out of poverty.