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'Voices of the Poor'

'Voices of the Poor' New Study Offers Unique Human Insight Into Living With Poverty World Bank says findings already driving  innovative development work

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WASHINGTON, March 14, 2000 -- The World Bank today published a revealing new study of the causes and effects of global poverty. "Voices of the Poor" presents detailed personal accounts from over 60,000 men and women in 60 countries about the realities of living with poverty, and what the poor need to improve their lives.

From Georgia to Brazil, and Nigeria to the Philippines, the new book, "Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us?" chronicles the daily struggles and aspirations of the poor, and how their lives are shaped by common hardships such as hunger, powerlessness, social isolation, state corruption, gender inequality, and the rudeness of local officials. Based on discussions with tens of thousands of poor people across five continents, the book, the first in a three volume series, concludes that poverty is much more than lack of income. Poverty also means having no "voice" in influencing key decisions that affect their lives, or representation in state and national political institutions.top of page

"What poor people share with us is sobering ," write World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn and British International Development Secretary Clare Short in the foreword to Voices of the Poor. "We commend to you the authenticity and significance of this work...our core mission is to help poor people succeed in their own efforts, and the book raises major challenges to both our institutions and to all of us concerned about poverty. We are prepared to hold ourselves accountable, to make the effort to respond to these voices."

Wolfensohn says the World Bank has embraced the key findings of the report, and, in particular, "community-driven development," projects which give community groups greater authority and control over national allocations of money and resourcesthereby guarding against corruptionand a more powerful "voice" within institutions whose decisions affect their families and livelihoods in order to make them more trustworthy and accountable.top of page

He adds that the compelling testimony in Voices of the Poor has spurred the Bank regional field operations to increase their support and funding for community-driven programs in client countries, employing social investment funds, local rural initiatives to improve water and sanitation facilities, and the upgrading of slum housing in urban areas. For example, in Bolivia, where the Bank worked closely with communities in the construction and operation of rural health facilities, child mortality has fallen by more than 40 percent over other areas without these community-designed and run facilities.

Key findings

The new study, the result of 10 years of intensive consultations with the poor, was to gather first-hand research about the lives of the poor, what they wanted to improve their lives, and drive innovative new Bank policies to reduce poverty, for its upcoming annual World Development Report, which this year addresses the theme of "Attacking Poverty."

Based on the thousands of discussions with communities throughout the developing world, the book offers a number of key findings which the poor themselves say greatly affect their daily lives.

Poverty is multidimensional The persistence of poverty is linked to a web of recurring factors. First, while poverty is rarely about the lack of only one thing, the bottom line is that the poor constantly live with hunger; second, poverty has important psychological dimensions, such as powerlessness, voicelessness, dependency, shame and humiliation; third, the poor lack access to basic infrastructure, such as roads, transportation and clean water; fourth, people realize education offers an escape from poverty, but only if the quality of education and the economic environment in the society at large improve; fifth, illness is especially feared because of exorbitant health care costs and not being able to work; and last, the poor rarely speak of income but instead focus on managing assetsphysical, human, social, and environmentalas a
way to cope with their vulnerability.top of page

The state has been largely ineffective in reaching the poor While recognizing the role of government in providing infrastructure, health, and education services, the poor feel that these government interventions should go much further. Too many interactions with state representatives are marred by rudeness and humiliation as the poor seek services such as health care, education for their children, social and relief assistance, police protection or justice from local authorities.

Corruption and distrust emerge as core poverty issues Poor men and women often do not trust government officials. This is based on their daily experiences with corrupt civil servants, their attempts to get teachers to educate their children, trying to get medicines from health clinics even after they have paid for them, seeking justice, or trying to get police to protect them.

Households are crumbling under the stresses of poverty Households often disintegrate as men, unable to adapt to their "failure" to earn adequate incomes under harsh economic circumstances, often turn to alcoholism or domestic violence, leading to a breakdown of the family structure. In contrast, women tend to swallow their pride and do demeaning jobs or anything that puts food on the table for their children and husbands. Gender inequity remains remarkably stubborn; economic empowerment for women does not necessarily lead to social empowerment or equality within households.

The social fabric, the poor's only "insurance" is unraveling Social insurance-the bonds of reciprocity and trust which the poor depend on in the absence of material assets-is unraveling. Difficult to reverse, the breakdown in social solidarity and social bonds leads to increased lawlessness, violence and crime, to which the poor are most vulnerable within a society.top of page

" While the Bank has always listened to the poor, the sheer scale of this study and its analysis demands our attention. Around the world, poor people's experiences highlight the role of power and social structures in determining who has opportunity and who is excluded" says Deepa Narayan, the author of Voices of the Poor and a Principle Senior Social Development Specialist at the World Bank. "The central challenge of the 21st century is to create governance systems from the local to the global level that include and respond to the priorities and concerns of the poor. This requires investment in their organizations so they can negotiate directly with governments, NGOs, traders, and international agencies. In a sense, 'Voices of the Poor' is a wake up call for all people and organizations concerned with poverty."

The way ahead comprehensive and inclusive development

Narayan says with the Bank mobilizing support for more community-based development projectsthose that give the poor more power and greater security and opportunity at the local levelpoor communities can put themselves "in the driver's seat" in assessing their own needs and devising ways to improve their living conditions.

Examples of current community-based projects include the financing of community education committees in rural areas in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras where parents themselves manage school funds, ensure student attendance, hire teachers and monitor their job performance; and a slum clearance program in four Latin American citiesGuatemala City, Caracas, Sao Paulo, and Recifewhere neighborhood associations, NGOs, and local government and private businesses are improving housing and local services to improve community health and reduce crime.top of page

World Bank lending of US$3 billion in support of community-driven development has attracted an additional $US 5 billion from donors, governments, and other development banks and agencies. More than 60 countries have now set up social development funds which, in turn, have financed more than 100,000 community-based programs worldwide. Typically, these programs include improving schools and health clinics; training women in job and organizational skills; and upgrading water supplies and local roads.

Other World Bank community projects in the pipeline include training health NGOs in China to help curb the spread of HIV/AIDS; funding village education committees in Indonesia to promote broader community involvement in local schools; and providing microcredit funds for former war victims in Azerbaijan.

This form of client-led initiative is replicated at the national level, Narayan says, with the Comprehensive Development Framework (CDF), which, in partnership with the broader international development community and civil society at all levels, lets developing countries devise development priorities and solutions that best suit their local circumstances. Along with greater Bank support for social development, Narayan believes that the challenges raised by Voices of the Poor are forcing the Bank to pursue creative new strategies in its development work.top of page

In addition to the extensive face-to-face consultations of the Voices of the Poor project, the Bank is also harnessing the power of the Internet to listen and learn from its clients, partners, and critics, on how best to fight poverty. The Development Forum, the Bank's electronic discussion space (www.worldbank.org/devforum) is currently hosting a public, global consultation on the first full draft
of the World Development Report 2001 on Poverty. This on-line conference is being jointly organized together with two non-governmental organizations-the Bretton Woods Project and the New Policy Institute. Over 1000 participants from across the globe are signed up to this online discussion, which runs until March 31.

Bank's partners also hear Voices of the Poor

The new study has been welcomed by the World Bank's partners in international development, some of whom describe it as "a remarkable testimony to the strength, and the spirit of the poor."

"The book communicates in a powerful way, the corruption and often inhumane behavior of institutions that have direct contact with the poor. No one escapes unscathed. Poor people around the world have challenged us to create new partnerships with them; partnerships in which they experience love, respect, listening, caring, honesty, fairness, unity, and helpfulness. In their simple words, poor people have shown us the real meaning of values-based development, " writes Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury and co-Chair of World Faiths Development Dialogue in his comments on the new book.

"By presenting visions of development as seen by the underdogs of society, this helps us understand the real nature of development," adds Professor Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Laureate for Economics, and the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. "The importance of freedom as the central feature of development emerges powerfully from these 'internal' views. These unrestrained voices deserve the attention not only of scholars and academics, but also of governments, international institutions, business communities, labor organizations, and civil society across the world. This is a marvelous introduction to development seen from inside."top of page

Journalists can access the full text of the report through the password-protected World Bank Online Media Briefing Center at:

Accredited journalists who do not already have a password may request one by completing a brief registration form at:

To order a copy of the publication, visit          http://www.worldbank.org/html/extpb/voices.htm
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