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Why don’t they go and look?

Development (Aid)
Kenyan slum

The reality of life in a slum, like this one in Kenya, is seldom experienced by today's development experts. Ninara under a Creative Commons Licence

One of the best moments in the Oscar-nominated movie The Big Short is when a couple of those who are beginning to realize that the US mortgage business has become a Ponzi scheme actually go out to see what is happening on the ground, where people live. They discover a contagion of ‘for sale’ boards and mortgage default: the evidence of the coming 2007 crash was there if you went to look.

If only leading international development experts had the same instinct. Too often, they never go near the situations of poverty which form the rationale and underpinning of their entire career. ‘I used to go to “the village” 20 years ago,’ one such professional remarked to me. ‘I don’t need to do that any more.’ Why not? Is every ‘village’ in Africa or India the same?

Today, not just the bureaucrats, consultants and ‘knowledge hub’ commentariat, but even regular programme staff spend less and less time troubling themselves with visits to ‘the field’. That is not how to climb the aid-industry career ladder. They will do better by attending a meeting in the Nairobi Marriott or the Dhaka Hilton on ‘bottleneck analysis’ or ‘resilience theory’.

How do you justify claiming a fee of $800 a day to assess or analyse poverty-reduction policies and practices when you never go near any person who is living on the proverbial $2 a day or less?     

It should be mandatory – if it is not self-imposed, which it clearly is not – for people whose work is paid for out of official and NGO aid budgets to spend a few days a year in a really dreadful slum, with filth at their feet and stink in their nostrils, before they presume to descant upon the prospects of ending poverty any time soon.

Assuming, that is, they are capable of engaging the brain while suffering such discomfort. If they manage that, it would become self-evident that the prospects of ‘eradicating extreme poverty’ or ‘ending hunger’ in 15 years’ time – the headliners among the new list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals – are totally unrealizable.

All the maths and graphs and pie-charts about world-poverty trends cannot substitute for common sense. In many cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, proportions of between 30 and 90 per cent of residents are living in slums and illegal shanty-towns. Many of them eat only once a day. Few have regular jobs: they live hand-to-mouth in the informal snack-food and plastic-bag economy.

If we are to believe the nonsense that we have eradicated half of extreme poverty in the last 15 years, these slums would be dwindling. Instead, they are growing. Even where bulldozers erase them, new ones spring up elsewhere. How do the experts explain this phenomenon? They don’t. The statistics they crunch are more comfortable allies than the spectacle of misery and marginalization the statistics ought to represent – but never do.

Today’s practitioners of international development spend more and more time and resources at further and further remove from the reality of what they are addressing. They want to improve lives en masse by attending to the ‘upstream’ policy environment in donor talking-shops. There are moments when one wonders if anything coming out of those exercises seriously impacts the ‘downstream’ environment in both town and countryside where people are trying to survive.

Front cover of NoNonsense International Development

Next time they say they have halved extreme poverty, why don’t they go and look? One day, when they have miraculously computed poverty away, they may finally realize the absurdity of their claims.

Maggie Black is the author of NoNonsense International Development – Illusions and Realities

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