Why development cannot help the poor without their help

new report from the Participate Initiative emphasises the importance of social networks in development and the need to listen to the perspectives of the most marginalised. The report highlights the complex relationship between social networks and formal institutions and the need for development organisations to recognise this before implementing new programs or technologies.

Participate is an initiative to bring knowledge and research from the margins to the post-2015 development debate, co-convened by the Institute of Development Studies and the Beyond 2015 civil society campaign.

The stories within this research challenge our view of what is common to the experience of poverty and marginalisation, in that there is less in common than assumed by dominant forms of international assistance, but there is more in common than just a collection of parables about the importance of context.

Dominant forms of international assistance often ignore how social forces interact with institutional structures, with grave consequences for those in the margins. The target based approach of the Millennium Development Goals aggravated this by incentivising development practitioners to prioritise those easiest to reach. In almost all of the research conducted, the very poorest and most marginalised have said that development policies have not met their expectations.

Yet the stories documented here exhibit identifiable patterns which point to a way of providing assistance that supports the agency of those who have suffered the gravest forms of deprivation and prejudice. Put simply, development cannot help the poorest without their help.

Participate makes the following recommendations for how policy and practice can reach out to those who have been left behind, based on principles from the research:

Rights, dignity, and equity:

  • Give marginalised groups the opportunity to define the rights that matter most to them
  • Target institutional discrimination, and ensure that government representatives and officials treat all people with respect
  • Protect rights called for by the poorest and most marginalised within legal frameworks
  • Prioritise investment in transformative education for all members of society
  • Work within and with families and communities to challenge discriminatory social norms

Inclusion, solidarity, collective action:

  • Support the capacity for self-organisation of marginalised groups
  • Enable spaces for collective action to emerge and help these initiatives to connect to one another directly

Participation, accountability, and democratic institutions:

  • Involve citizens in creating, monitoring and implementing policies
  • Promote initiatives that build on local and indigenous knowledges
  • Create opportunities for real dialogue between marginalised and excluded groups and authorities at the local, national, regional, and global levels

Services and policies which respond to the needs of the poorest:

  • Introduce carefully considered quotas for the most marginalised to help addressinequalities
  • Prioritise development investment which starts with the needs of the poorest and most marginalised
  • Ensure that programme success indicators are linked directly to positive impacts for the poorest and most marginalised
  • Ensure that the poorest get access to, and control over, productive assets
  • Recognise and support the ‘informal’ spaces people inhabit to survive
  • Provide support to enable people to make the transitions from informal environments to more stable formal environments
  • Invest in pro-poor infrastructure and utilities

As the report states, these recommendations are not designed to “idealise participatory approaches to development”. Progress in this field is seldom linear, and setbacks and backlash occur. However, “there is little chance for international assistance or national and local development policies to benefit the poorest without their participation”.