Voices of the poor

This blog is written by Elizabeth Stuart, head of the Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme at the Overseas Development Institute

“Listen to us. Don’t talk about us without us.”

Among the speeches of the UN Secretary General and World Bank President at this week’s UN General Assembly meeting on refugees and migrants, Eni Lestari Andayani Adi, from the International Migrants Alliance, made a powerful call for the marginalised to be included at the highest level.

This may seem self-evident. It’s obvious that it would be, at best, distasteful to focus the highest levels of political attention on an issue and not have those at its heart in the room, actively contributing.

It’s not unreasonable for political meetings to be dominated by political figures. Their purpose is to make governmental and intergovernmental commitments, so it’s right that the majority of those in the room be official representatives and their advisers. But you still need people speaking from the front line, both to give clarity to the issue, and to remind negotiators that real people’s wellbeing is at stake, not just a government’s geopolitical dignity.

And it’s better than it used to be. Until relatively recently, it was viewed as acceptable to have high-level politicos as the only ‘experts’ in the room. More progressive people at the UN had to fight to have, say, a midwife from a developing country speak at an event on African healthcare, or a teacher from a developing country at an event focusing on getting children around the world into school. That is no longer the case (and hopefully the representation that there is is not tokenistic. A panel with a last minute addition of a refugee/poor person is little better than the all-male panel (or ‘manel’).

But even more important than improving inclusive representation in New York or other international gatherings – although that’s important – is that the policy those political representatives are negotiating or announcing at these meetings be informed by opinions, concerns, priorities and preferences of the people most affected.

Too often this isn’t happening.  Extraordinarily, it has been more than seven years since arguably the last major effort to listen in depth to the concerns of poor people. Voices of the Poor was a World Bank exercise conducted to inform the 2001 World Development Report. It gathered the experiences of more than 60,000 poor people in rural areas in 15 countries. In 2009 Moving out of Poverty was a large-scale comparative research effort. More recently, more than one person in every thousand in the world has completed the MY World survey, answering which six out of 16 development priorities are most important to you and your family, although while this gives a snapshot, it wasn’t designed to give an in-depth understanding.

Listening to the voices of the poor and marginalised will be particularly important to achieve the leave no one behind ambition of the SDGs. This also has read-through to the refugee debate (even if in the nomenclature of the World Humanitarian Summit, the term ‘leave no one behind’ has a slightly different meaning to that of the SDG text: it refers to addressing forced displacement, whereas in the SDGs it means ensuring that progress is speeded up for people – and groups – left furthest behind by progress). The fact that what constitutes a left-behind group will fluctuate over time, as is itself demonstrated by the rapid flux in migrant populations, clearly underlines why it is unlikely that policy interventions will succeed unless designed with a thorough understanding of changing dynamics of what the people themselves want and need.

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