It seems obvious that if we want to help anyone to achieve their aspirations we should make an effort to find out what their aspirations are. That is why I suggested in my last post that it would be a good idea to ask poor people about their priorities for economic development, rather than seeking to replace the Millennium Development Goals with another set of priorities generated by development experts and bureaucrats.
An obvious way to proceed would be to conduct surveys to ask people to select priorities from among the 17 goals proposed by the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals. However, I am not sure that list is an adequate reflection of what we know about the aspirations of poor people in developing countries.
The book, Moving Out of Poverty, by Deepa Narayan, Lant Pritchett and Soumya Kapoor (published in 2009) is a good place to start to get some understanding of the aspirations of poor people in developing countries. The study collected information from 60,000 people in over 500 communities in 15 countries. The authors used a range of different data collection methods including focus group discussions, household interviews and interviews of individuals to obtain their life stories. They were aware that some of the methods they used to collect data may be subject to bias, but the methods chosen had the virtue of allowing poor people (and people who had escaped from poverty) to speak for themselves.
One of the major findings of the study was that poor people see poverty as an experience that can be escaped by individual effort, self-reliance and initiative, rather than an identity or fate resulting from personal characteristics (such as illiteracy). The evidence seems to support that view. There is a lot of movement into and out of poverty and there are typically more similarities than differences between households in poverty and those which have escaped poverty.
The views of the poor people covered by the study often reflect what the authors describe as “the hunger for freedom”. The concept of freedom that people have in mind encompasses individual liberty, but it is broader than that. It seems to be summed up in a discussion by women in Chinxe, Mexico, who said: “Freedom means having opportunities”.
The authors present evidence that the freedoms and opportunities that poor people value are much the same as those valued by other humans: the freedom to speak their minds; the freedom to choose how to live their lives according to their beliefs and desires; freedom to live with dignity and respect (e.g. having enough money for daily expenses and not being beaten); freedom from fear and oppression (including the right to protest and vote); freedom of movement (including, for women, freedom from customary restrictions); and freedom from restrictions hampering the ability of people to find work, control their money, establish and conduct businesses, to own property and goods, and to sell their property whenever and to whomever they choose.
The authors suggest three principles that should guide future approaches to poverty reduction:
- All actions should seek to expand the scope for people in poverty to utilize their agency (i.e. their ability to help themselves) in both the public and private spheres.
- Actions should seek to transform markets so that poor people can access and participate in them fairly.
- Well-functioning local democracies can help poor people move out of poverty.
Unfortunately, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals does not seem to consider any of these principles to be sufficiently important to be reflected in future development goals.