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Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

Poverty unperceived: Traps, biases and agenda

IDS Working paper 270

Robert Chambers

Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

July 2006

SARPN acknowledges the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) as a source of this report:
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With the priority of poverty reduction and with accelerating change in many dimensions, up-to-date and realistically informed perceptions of the lives and conditions of people living in poverty have come to matter more than ever. At the same time, new pressures and incentives increasingly trap decision-makers in headquarters and capital cities, reinforcing earlier (1983) analysis of the attraction of urban ‘cores’ and the neglect of rural ‘peripheries’. These trends make decision-makers’ learning about poverty and from people living in poverty rarer and ever more important. One common means has been rural development tourism, the phenomenon of the brief rural visit from an urban centre. In 1983, six biases of such visits – spatial, project, person, seasonal, diplomatic and professional - against seeing, meeting and learning from the poorer people, were identified and described. Security can now be added as a seventh.

Much can be done to offset the biases. The solution is to make more visits, not fewer, and to enjoy doing them better. In addition, new and promising approaches have been pioneered for experiential, direct learning, face-to-face with poor and marginalised people. Examples are: UNHCR’s annual participatory assessments by staff; SDC’s ‘views of the poor’ participatory research in Tanzania; and various forms of immersion, most recently those being convened and organised by ActionAid International. In many immersions, outsiders become guests for a few days and nights, and live, experience and learn in a community. The question now is not how an organisation can afford the time and other resources for immersions for its staff. It is how, if it is seriously pro-poor, it can possibly not do so.

This paper is a challenge to development actors to practice a responsible pro-poor professionalism; to be pioneers and champions, seizing and making space for themselves and others to offset the biases and traps of headquarters and capital cities; and to have the vision and guts to seek out direct experiential learning and so to be in touch and up-to-date with the realities of the people living in poverty whom they seek to serve.

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