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Poor People Endure Many Struggles; New Bank Study Cites Powerlessness And Domestic Violence--'Voices of the Poor' Volume II

Press Release No:2001/070/S
Contact Person:
In Prague : Phil Hay 420-2-6117-3153
Mobile 420-606-629-499
In Washington: Nicole Kekeh (202) 473-1782
PRAGUE, September 21, 2000--A deep sense of powerlessness characterizes the lives of poor people in developing countries, says a new World Bank study.

Voices of the Poor: Crying Out for Change, the second in a three-volume study, is based on the experiences of more than 20,000 poor men and women across urban and rural communities in 23 countries. The first volume, Can Anyone Hear Us? was released in Washington in March. The third volume, From Many Lands, provides country case studies and regional patterns and will be published early next year.

Nick Stern, World Bank Chief Economist, says, "the Voices of the Poor study has made a major contribution to how we think about poverty and poverty reduction strategies."

Deepa Narayan, Voices lead author and Principal Social Development Specialist at the World Bank, says the new study offers key insights from the poor that need to be central to strategies to tackle global poverty. "Poor quality of life is much more than just material poverty," says Narayan. "Poverty has many dimensions, and they combine to create and sustain powerlessness, lack of voice, and a lack of freedom of choice and action.

"Poor people confront their powerlessness every day, whether it is with rude and indifferent government officials or exploitative employer," Narayan continues. "Powerlessness forces poor men and women to make agonizing choicestaking on a dangerous job or starving, sending a child to school or feeding the family. For many women, home is not a haven. Domestic violence mars the lives of many women, who feel powerless to take action."

The new study, which is based on small group discussions with poor men and women, finds that voicelessness and powerlessness tie together and reinforce the many dimensions of poverty, making it difficult for poor people to escape poverty. A poor Jamaican woman said, "Poverty is like living in jail, living under bondage, waiting to be free."

Poor people's struggles cluster around 10 interlocking dimensions illustrated in figure 1. Four of these dimensions are highlighted here.

Precarious Livelihoods. Poor people's often precarious and unpredictable livelihoods form a key dimension of their powerlessness. They work primarily in the informal sector, with no social protection, and frequently patch together several activities that are low-paying, temporary, seasonal, backbreaking, dangerous, and sometimes outside the law. A large majority in the study see economic opportunity as distant for them and insecurity increasing. In Malawi, poor men cried, "the problem is that these boatowners know we are starving. As such we would accept any little wages they would offer to us because they know we are very desperate…we want to save our children from dying."

Vulnerable Bodies. Poor people often find the body is their main asset. Weak, hungry, and exhausted, they are paid little or sometimes not at all because others know they are desperate and have no recourse. Illness or injury are reported to be common triggers of devastation for poor families. The study details many difficulties with accessing medical care, including high fees, corruption, long waiting times, rude behavior and poor quality treatment. A participant from Vares, Bosnia states, "Before everyone could get health care, but now everyone just prays they don't get sick because everywhere they ask for money."

Troubled Gender Relations. Within households, roles are changing and creating turmoil in gender relations. Male unemployment and deepening economic stress have placed greater pressure on women to seek paid work. Poor men express humiliation and anger over losing their role as the sole or main breadwinner. Continuing gender inequity is tragically evident from domestic violence reported in 90 percent of the communities where the topic was discussed. A poor woman from Vietnam confides, "Lots of women in this neighborhood are beaten by their husbands." In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, one third of communities visited reported an increase in physical violence against women.

Disempowering Institutions. When discussing their experiences with a range of state, private and civil society institutions, poor people describe problems of rudeness, indifference, corruption and exploitation. Speaking of municipal officials, participants from a community in Ecuador say, "Some receive us, others don't. It's awful…. They are abusive….They treat one almost like a dog….The municipality only services the high society ones." A particularly striking finding is the widespread reports of corrupt, criminal and sometimes brutal behavior by the police. In Bangladesh, "Poor people have no access to the police station, bank, government offices and the judge of the village court. The rich people dominate these institutions". What poor people want instead are institutions that are responsive, accessible, participatory, fair, caring, trusting, uniting, and truthful.

To survive, poor people rely mainly on informal networks of family, kin, and neighbors. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are regarded as saviors in some places, but poor people would like to have NGOs accountable to them. NGOs have played important roles in supporting survival, but not empowerment. Religious organizations are widely valued and trusted for providing both spiritual and material support, but people feel excluded from their decisionmaking.

"Poor people want to influence and be involved in decisions that affect their lives. Poor people know that many of these decisions are made not at the local level but at the national and global level," Narayan notes. "A key message from the study is that the world looks very different through the eyes of a poor man or woman. One central task is to support mechanisms that enable poor people's voices to be heard. The development challenge is to start with poor people's realities and use technical expertise to solve their most urgent problems. It is also to support poor people's own efforts and organizations. This will require a new mindset among all who work on poverty issues."

Robert Chambers, study co-author and Research Associate with the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, says, "The gains in wellbeing that would mean much to poor people call for changes in development thinking, priorities and practice. Crying Out for Change challenges each of us to reexamine the meaning of development and to give priority to those who have the least."

Leaders in the development field reflect on the implications of Crying Out for Change for efforts to reduce poverty:

Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organization, says, "This book forcefully reminds us that more than anything else, the poor dread illness within the family… When an adult is sick, the household suffers. When an adult dies, the consequences can be devastating. A catastrophe today can affect generations to come. Our challenge is to learn from what we hear and see—and to use the insights provided by this remarkable text to bring about real and lasting change in the lives of the poor."

Ela R. Bhatt, Founder of the Self-employed Women's Association, a group that provides services to 200,000 poor women in the informal sector in India, says, "In presenting poor people's own understanding of poverty, Crying Out for Change opens a new window to the complex and dynamic forces that disempower and exclude millions of men and women from the development process. On these pages, poor women and men say they want opportunities to access resources, not charity; they make urgent calls for more adequate and secure livelihoods and proper support to build up their economic community organizations."

Graça Machel, President of Fundação para o Desenvolvimento da Comunidade, Mozambique, and the previous First Lady of South Africa says: "Crying Out for Change is a sobering reminder of why poor people stay poor despite working long hours day after day, with low returns; yet poor men and women do not give up hope. As the study makes clear, powerlessness resulting from precarious livelihoods, lack of safety, insecurity, corruption, domestic violence in the house and excluding and abusive behavior from society's institutions all combine in a vicious web. All who care about poverty reduction should reflect on the findings of this study, and more important, do more and better to open opportunities for the poor to change and control their lives."

To read the full text of Voices of the Poor: Crying Out For Change, visit:

Press Conference Transcript

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