I have been reading a straight forward and insightful book into how poor people in the poorest countries of the world go about their lives, what motivates them, what they expect of themselves and others, and how they make the choices they have the ability to make. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty is a Freakonomics for the bottom billion. The authors, Banerjee and Duflo, take a refreshing empirical stance on the issues facing the world’s poorest people using randomised control testing to explore questions that are often merely answered by idle rhetoric and ideology. They seek to address these issues using hard data.
I am loathe to homogenise all the poor people in the world, and I fear that any book with as broad a target as they take is victim to the appeal of making sweeping global generalisations with no practical uses. Yet by grounding their research in a wide variety of small case studies they show that the similarities between poor people of the world are great and what motivates and holds back a poor person, be it in India, Kenya, Indonesia, or The Gambia, are often very similar. In recognizing these similarities they are trying to break down many of the unhelpful stereotypes which abound and they are hitting back ‘this urge to reduce the poor to a set of clichés that has been with us for as long as there has been poverty. The poor appear, in social theory as much as in literature, by turns lazy or enterprising, noble or thievish, angry or passive, helpless or self-sufficient.’
It has been a heartening read for me. I recognize many of the issues highlighted in the book in the village I live in in The Gambia. Issues such as teachers not being in class, people not spending their money on nutritious food, people not using preventative methods to fight against disease are all explored in the book and are all issues I have encountered and pondered about her in Ker Sait Maram. I have often been inclined to blame these problems on The Gambia, on the culture, on the individuals, when maybe I should have seen these issues more as widespread symptoms of the undoubted poverty here.
Whilst helping me see a bigger picture it hasn’t helped me in coming up with a master plan to help the people of the village.
‘The poor often resist the wonderful plans we think up for them because they do not share our faith that those plans work, or work as well as we claim. The poor may well be more sceptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible, celebrating when occasion demands it.’
Peace Corps is all about having big wonderful plans and I came into village with many big ideas and boundless enthusiasm and was slightly perturbed when people didn’t seem to jump on the band wagon of my garbled gusto. I think now I am becoming more understanding of people’s skepticism, whilst seeing the importance of small achievable goals and incentives. Banerjee and Duflo point to three I’s – ideology, ignorance and inertia – on the part of the expert, the aid worker, or the local policy maker, and how they often explain why policies fail and why aid does not have the effect it should. I’ve been battling my entrenched ideology and ignorance somewhat successfully the past 8 months. My internal fight against inertia is a more formidable guerrilla struggle.