Immersions for ‘poverty professionals’

A friend forwarded this piece by Ravi Kanbur. It is a heart-felt tribute to Robert Chambers and a rather candid admission of the dilemmas of being a development professional, or poverty professional, as Kanbur calls us.And Kanbur, being a former World Bank staff, knows exactly all about this…

Rather delightfully, the economist in Kanbur reveals a humble side, one that he accepts is a rarity among his peers. He says –

I still remain a card carrying economist, fully aware of the power and reach of my discipline, and ready to defend it against ignorant or envious attacks by those who cannot understand it or master it. But the epistemological basis of my discipline, and its attendant weaknesses, are clearer to me now than they were when I first became a professional economist. Indeed, perhaps the greatest weakness of economists is that we do not fully understand the weaknesses of our discipline.

But the article is not just about economists. The article about all of us – people who are in the development sector, those making a rather good living out of it. The article also distinguishes between the for-profit entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist and the conventional set of aid workers by pointing out that

…in these cases, at least, the wealth came first and then the desire to reach out to the poor. And we can legitimately ask whether the philanthropy that it generates is a good enough reason to allow wealth to build to such staggering levels. What is striking about the class of poverty professionals (of whom I am one) is that the good living (granted, not at the billionaire or millionaire level, but pretty good nevertheless) is made through the very process of analyzing, writing, recommending on poverty. To me, at least, this is discomforting and disconcerting

Thus, development work being ‘not too bad for one’s own poverty’ is an undeniable truth – at least for international development workers. Although one can argue about relative levels of being well off (especially in comparison to the people we are supposedly working for), I draw inspiration from a bunch of friends who have chosen a modest living, so they could dedicate themselves to development work. Just to cite one among them – a very close friend of mine recently quit his job in a donor agency to work with a grassroots NGO in one of the poorest states in India, choosing not to (for now, at least) propel himself up the conventional career ladder of the ‘development set’.

For the rest of us, Kanbur recommends ‘immersions’ – the program Chambers used to refer to during his Saturday workshops at IDS.

My specific proposal, therefore, is that each poverty professional should engage in an “exposure” to poverty (also known as “immersions”) every 12 to 18 months. I do not mean by this rural sector missions for aid agency officials, nor the running of training workshops by NGO staff. What I mean is well captured by Eyben (2004); these are exercises that “are designed for visitors to stay for a period of several days, living with their hosts as participants, as well as observers, in their daily lives. They are distinct from project monitoring or highly structured ‘red carpet’ trips when officials make brief visits to a village or an urban slum….”

During those workshops at IDS last year, I spent quite some time wondering that ‘immersions’ might be useful, but are they the most effective way of reaching where we want to reach? Kanbur addresses the prominent criticisms of the approach – the poverty tourism argument, of it being an extractive exercise and the quantum of resources this would require. I feel ‘immersions’ are partly a result of a few core assumptions about development workers, that have crystallised on the basis of the typical high-flying poverty professional:

  • They are very busy – so they cannot be expected to change their regular life-styles. Instead, all they can do is to schedule slots in their calendars for a week-long ‘immersion’
  • They need to have a high standard of living and be paid astronomical amounts – just so that they can be efficient? Efficient, by removing themselves from the realities of where they live, so they can focus on the logframe and the activity report? One can understand development workers not living in slums. But do they have to become the new elite? 
  • Life styles are hard to change – a common paradox I see frequently around me is that of the development professional using CFL bulbs in their homes and offices, while driving around only in SUVs. Top-of-the-line international development workers could live their lives insulated from all the elements that are characteristic of the countries they live in. Sure, to their credit, lots of them choose not to do so. But I have to ask – how many of them here in Accra have ever taken a tro-tro ride?

Immersions are necessary in a world where none of the above can be changed. Have we accepted that the system itself cannot be changed? Just as Kanbur suggests, the marketplace of development workers should perhaps call their bluff by collectively rationalising salaries…won’t that be fun!

PS – Check out Ravi Kanbur’s website for many more interesting pieces on poverty and development – especially the one on Amartya Sen. And you might want to read this and this – about his resignation from the WB, over disagreements on the World Development Report.

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