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Polling the poor

15 March 2010

After my field work in 2008 in rural Malawi, I became an advocate for polling the poor to see what they wanted from development agencies to improve their own condition. In the interest of full disclosure, my motivations are not purely altruistic: I’d very much like to be the one doing the polling as it would satisfy a personal curiosity whilst also providing me with incredible data from which I could likely write a few interesting papers.

I agree with those who think that the poor might know better what their needs are. Alanna Shaikh reminds us why [we] can’t understand global health:

If you are reading this blog post, you can’t really understand the most important dynamic in global health: poverty and ill-health. They go together in a powerful vicious cycle. When you are poor you lack access to medical care and are you exposed to environmental factors that put you at a hugely increased risk of getting sick.

If you can read this, that’s not you. By definition, you speak English and you have access to the internet. You earn more than a dollar a day. You can’t understand.

At the same time, I grapple with the notion that there are serious problems suffered by a minority of people that will be overlooked in any sort of plurality system of decision making. Though I know that the rural Malawians I surveyed in 2008 rank HIV/AIDS as the lowest of five public policy priorities available to them, those same respondents were worried about future HIV infection. My intuition is that though HIV is a real threat, it fails to get priority over other day-to-day concerns like access to clean water. Without careful thinking (and just quick-and-dirty polling), we could act even more irresponsibly by saying that we simply gave people what they asked for, at least as learned by surveys we wrote.

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