Ravi Kanbur has written an interesting paper (pdf) about how he feels as someone who makes a good living from analysing and writing about poverty. Here is an extract, but it is worth reading the whole, thoughtful piece:
What is striking about the class of poverty professionals (of whom I am one) is that the good living (granted, not at the billionaire or millionaire level, but pretty good nevertheless) is made through the very process of analyzing, writing, recommending on poverty. To me, at least, this is discomforting and disconcerting. I feel slightly ashamed within myself when I turn up to a poverty conference (perhaps even one where I am the keynote speaker), having flown business class, staying in an expensive hotel and (sometimes) being paid handsomely for attending. I recall many years ago, when I was in my twenties, telling the anthropologist Mary Douglas about how I was starting to do consulting for the World Bank on poverty issues, and how important it was to do this work. “And it’s not too bad for one’s own poverty either, is it?” came her worldly, knowing, reply. The seeds of discomfort sown by that comment have germinated and taken root, and now won’t let go.
Ravi suggests that everyone working in development should reconnect with poverty through a poverty immersion:
each poverty professional should engage in an “exposure” to poverty (also known as “immersions”) every 12 to 18 months. I do not mean by this rural sector missions for aid agency officials, nor the running of training workshops by NGO staff. What I mean is well captured by Eyben (2004); these are exercises that “are designed for visitors to stay for a period of several days, living with their hosts as participants, as well as observers, in their daily lives. They are distinct from project monitoring or highly structured ‘red carpet’ trips when officials make brief visits to a village or an urban slum….”
A friend of mine from DFID did this recently and came back saying how valuable it was. I am in favour of immersions, though I don’t think it gets close to addressing the problem that Ravi is grappling with.
This reminds me that in March 2008, the Conservative development spokesman (and, since yesterday, the UK Secretary of State for International Development) announced that all DFID staff would be required to undertake a week-long immersion living in a poorer community. Andrew Mitchell said:
These immersions will serve as a valuable ‘reality check’ from the usual round of meetings, paperwork and spreadsheets. It will help keep everyone at DfID focused on their core mission: serving and helping poor people to work their way, sustainably, out of poverty.
I hope that they will implement this proposal now that they are in Government, and I hope DFID’s new Ministers will consider doing an immersion themselves, perhaps during the summer recess.