Voices from the Poverty Trap

“Ultimately it is individual people who experience the deprivations of poverty, not countries or regions” – Hulme and Kothari, 2004

BRAC Development Institute, a policy and research centre dedicated to promoting research and building knowledge to meet the challenges of poverty, has been gathering life histories of CGAP-Ford Graduation Program participants in Haiti, India, Pakistan and Ethiopia. The research followed 20 participants (mainly women) over the course of a year in order to understand how they became poor, how the graduation program fits into the wider context of their lives, and the changes that they have experienced as a result of taking part in this initiative.  The next several blogs and recently launched papers will seek to distil key lessons, and perspectives, from the research.

The process of collecting life histories is long, laborious, and conducting oral histories requires skill. So why use them in the first place? Simply put, to know the “why.” The study of poverty dynamics, as Hulme and Kothari noted so eloquently in 2004, has been long dominated by quantitative analysis and data sets. While these can a describe patterns and correlations, they have proved to be less effective at explaining why these occur. We know that all graduation program participants in a pilot are given the same set of inputs and resources. Why, then, have some participants been unable to escape poverty, while others are full of life and potential?  Through dissecting personal stories, we are able to understand the differences between individuals, and the reasons behind their progress (or lack thereof).

Another reason why life histories are important is that it forces us to consider the “multiple positionalities” of the person speaking.  For a graduation program participant, her story is a reflection of her perspectives as a woman, a member of her culture, a mother, daughter-in-law, the breadwinner of her family.  These perspectives, when gathered at different points in time, give us important insight into the various constraints associated with each of these roles, and how they evolved over the course of the program.  As an example, Miriam in Sindh, Pakistan, felt that the consumption stipend was the thing that really changed her fate. When asked why, she stated,

“I am a mother –in-law.  I had to ask my son-in-law for help everyday with buying groceries. In our culture, a mother-in-law never asks her son-in-law for help. It is a matter of shame. Since receiving the stipend, I no longer had to ask him for financial support. I gained my honour back.”

Lastly, life histories enable those who have been hidden to be heard. Graduation program participants are marginalised. The process of telling their stories is in itself empowering, since for many, it is the first time value has been placed on their perceptions. Also, incorporating their perspectives brings an excluded view to conventional research and policy.

There are, of course, limitations. Life histories are not objective, and we cannot generalise from the personal histories of a few. The quantitative studies of the graduation program are therefore important for an understanding of overall trends. Combining both research methodologies provides the best of both worlds. The quantitative gives us a snapshot of the changes that took place, while the qualitative gives us deep insight into how the participants experienced that change.

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