And when the numbers go against what you have always said....

Today [note: this was actually written about a week ago, but I just got around to finishing typing it], around 400 DHANites got together to talk about poverty and our motivation to work with the poor. Our “reference” materials were a chapter from a book titled Moving Out of Poverty (one of the authors of this book was Amy’s teacher, by the way), some 35 questions from Vasi, the Executive Director of DHAN Foundation, and, of course, our experiences. One of the points of focus for discussion was a pair of pie-charts. The first was a set of factors which contribute to the poor “moving” out of poverty, and the second was on the factors which cause people to “fall” into poverty.

I’ll start by being vague. The discussions were “interesting.”

But, they weren’t as interesting as they could have been. I found them to be quite predictable and somewhat tame.

“Alcoholism leads people into poverty.” “Daily wage earners are poor.” “Increasing savings reduces poverty.” “The poor are poor because they are poor.” (I hear that one all the time—I don’t totally understand it.) “Lack of education leads to poverty.”

Throughout the discussion (which took place in lots of small groups), there seemed to be a hidden force driving participants to try to answer a list of lead discussion questions with tidy compact answers—but that’s not really how life is, right?

But what I felt was really “interesting” was that the pair of charts that we were provided as a base for discussion seemed to go against some of the fundamental statements that are regularly made by many DHANites (and statements that are also part of the curriculum at the Academy). Yet, we seemed to glaze over this.

Here are some specifics: out of 10 reasons for falling into poverty, the major community-cited reasons for falling into poverty included “decreasing national/local prosperity” (22.3%) and “health/death shocks and natural disasters” (19.4%). Add in “job loss/unemployment” (7.4%), “family problems/expenses” (11.6%), and “functioning of local democracy” (2.6%) and you’ve passed the 50% mark by quite a bit. The least cited reason on the list is “gambling, alcohol, and drug addiction” which was cited by just 0.7% of the community as one of the top three reasons people are likely to fall into poverty.1

The other chart2 was equally peculiar. When asked about the factors which contribute to the poor moving out of poverty, the single biggest factor (60.1%) was “individual initiative” in nonagriculture pursuits (entrepreneurship, new income sources, better jobs). Almost at the bottom of the list, a meager 0.3%, was “NGO assistance.” (“Luck”, by the way, got zero.)

But, I think that these charts are easily explained and don’t necessarily contradict what we’re saying as DHANites. For starters, is there, perhaps, a communication error? The note at the bottom of the chart clearly states that the percentages are of the “top three reasons cited” but doesn’t say anything about the rank of these results. In other words, since “decreasing national/local prosperity” found itself in the top three most often (22.3%), can we also conclude that the respondents would cite that as the number one reason? Not necessarily. Also, I would be curious to find out how the numbers changed if we looked at, instead, the top four reasons cited. Equally important is that DHAN’s big criticism of alcohol isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) that alcohol leads people into poverty; it is more that alcohol consumption is more likely to keep people in poverty.

For the chart about coming out of poverty, along with the same logic as above, there is one more important consideration: I don’t think that most DHANites are in this line of work for the fame. And, our work is not about hand-holding people and helping them out of poverty. The work we do is more about enabling the poor to be able to show initiative, and I’m sure most people would agree that “initiative” without “ability” is unlikely to succeed. If I extend the analogy to my classroom, I like to think that my influence is somewhat invisible. I prompt my students and provoke them to think and along the way, I give them tips to improve their English. I don’t really want or expect them to turn around one day and say “Ananda is the reason I improved my English skills.” On the contrary, I would be elated if they saw their determination to succeed as the primary cause of their success. After all, what better reward is there to hard work than getting success?

Another reason that I found these pie-charts significant, and I wished we discussed this more, was that these were the outcomes of the voices of the community. At DHAN we value what people have to say, and, as such, I think it’s very important to at least try to understand the community perception of both how poverty occurs and of how people can emerge from such situations. That’s not to say that the community always knows what is best for them, but knowing this information will definitely have an impact on how successful we are in our work.

One final observation is the nature of these results themselves. For the factors for falling into poverty, a large percentage (almost 60%) of the “reasons for falling” are almost entirely out of the control of the individual. Alcohol consumption is within their control; it really doesn’t look good to blame yourself for your problems, and it probably isn’t accurate to do so anyway. I don’t know anyone who chooses a life of poverty.

  1. This chart was reproduced in the reading materials we had for the first day of DHAN’s 12th Retreat. Here are the notes from the original chart:

    Source: Authors’ analysis of household survey: all study regions; N = 3,661 (all four mobility groups).

    Note: Figures are percentages of reasons cited by respondents in all mobility groups when asked to name the top three reasons for their downward movement.

    What I found interesting was that DHAN’s bias showed through in how we “recaptioned” the original chart. We labeled it as “Reasons for poor falling into poverty” (which, when you think about it, makes no sense at all—maybe they were trying to say “reasons for poor falling further into poverty”?)

  2. This was the second chart used as the basis for discussion on the first day of DHAN’s 12th Retreat. Here are the original notes from the book:

    Source: Authors’ analysis of household survey: all study regions; N = 3,991 movers.

    Note: Figures are percentages of reasons cited by movers when asked to name the top three reasons for their movement out of poverty. “Individual initiative (nonagriculture)” includes finding jobs, investing in business, adding new sources of income, and migration.

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