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Listen to the Voices

Below you will find excerpts from Voices of Poor. Listen to the poor as they speak about their lives, and what it means to be poor. The excerpts are organized around the major conclusions of the study:

  1. The poor view wellbeing holistically
  2. Insecurity has increased. Violence is on the rise, both domestically and in the society. And the poor feel they have been bypassed by new economic opportunities.
  3. Gender inequity is widespread, domestic violence pervasive and gender relations stressed.
  4. The poor want governments and state institutions to be more accountable to them. Corruption emerges as a key poverty issue.
  5. NGOs receive mixed ratings
  6. The poor rely on informal networks and local institutions to survive, including the local holy man and the local nurse.

The poor view wellbeing holistically

Poverty is much more than income alone. For the poor, the good life or wellbeing is multidimensional with both material and psychological dimensions. Wellbeing is peace of mind; it is good health; it is belonging to a community; it is safety; it is freedom of choice and action; it is a dependable livelihood and a steady source of income; it is food.

The poor describe illbeing as lack of material things - food especially but also lack of work, money, shelter and clothing -- and living and working in often unhealthy, polluted and risky environments. They also defined illbeing as bad experiences and bad feelings about the self. Perceptions of powerlessness over one's life and of voicelessness was common; so was anxiety and fear for the future.

"Poverty is like living in jail, living under bondage, waiting to be free" — Jamaica

"Poverty is lack of freedom, enslaved by crushing daily burden, by depression and fear of what the future will bring." — Georgia

"If you want to do something and have no power to do it, it is talauchi (poverty)." — Nigeria

"Lack of work worries me. My children were hungry and I told them the rice is cooking, until they fell asleep from hunger." — an older man from Bedsa, Egypt.

"A better life for me is to be healthy, peaceful and live in love without hunger. Love is more than anything. Money has no value in the absence of love." — a poor older woman in Ethiopia

"When one is poor, she has no say in public, she feels inferior. She has no food, so there is famine in her house; no clothing, and no progress in her family." — a woman from Uganda

"For a poor person everything is terrible - illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of." — a blind woman from Tiraspol, Moldova

"I repeat that we need water as badly as we need air." — a woman from Tash-Bulak, The Kyrgyz Republic

"The waste brings some bugs; here we have cockroaches, spiders and even snakes and scorpions." — Nova California, Brazil


Insecurity has increased. Violence is on the rise, both domestically and in the society. And the poor feel they have been bypassed by new economic opportunities.

By and large poor people feel they have not been able to take advantage of new economic opportunities because of lack of connections and lack of information, skills and credit. Unemployment and lack of food and money appear as problems in many communities. The poor, who work primarily in the informal sector, report experiencing life as more insecure and unpredictable than a decade or so ago. This is linked to unpredictability of agriculture, jobs that are unreliable and with low returns, loss of traditional livelihoods, breakdown of the state, breakdown of traditional social solidarity, social isolation, increased crime and violence, lack of access to justice, extortion, and brutality from the police rather than protection. Illness is dreaded and lack of affordable health care pushes many families into indebtedness and destitution.

"Everyday I am afraid of the next" — Russia

"Wasta (nepotism or connections) is the most important thing. If one has wasta then one can work." — Egypt

"Life in the area is so precarious that the youth and every able person has to migrate to the towns or join the army at the war front in order to escape the hazards of hunger escalating over here." — a discussion group in rural Ethiopia

"Today we're fine, tomorrow they will throw us out." — Isla Trinitaria (a squatter settlement), Ecuador

In Chittagong, Bangladesh, vulnerability was defined by slum-dwellers as "the failure to protect their young daughters from hooligans as well as protect themselves both from the harassment of outsider hoodlums and the police."

"The police support their families by just showing their shadow." — Akhuria, Armenia.

"As the state sector contracts, employment opportunities are evaporating." — Ukraine

"After one poor crop, we need three good harvests to return to normal." — Vietnam

"If you don't have money today, your disease will take you to your grave," — an old woman from Ghana


Gender inequity is widespread, domestic violence pervasive and gender relations stressed.

With increased economic hardship and a decline in poor men's income earning opportunities, poor women across the world report "swallowing their pride" and going out to do even demeaning jobs to bring food to the family. In their struggles to adapt to changing economic roles in the household, women widely report greatly increased work burdens; and men in many communities express frustration and humiliation with the lack of livelihood opportunities. This loss of traditional male "breadwinner role" and female "caretaker role" is traumatic for both genders, and family breakdown, domestic violence and increased alcoholism among men are often mentioned. In some communities, awareness raising by NGOs, churches and women's groups is contributing to changing social norms and eventually to harmony and equity within the household.

"Sister, if you don't beat them they'll stop being good. And if they're good and you beat them, they'll stay that way." — Bangladesh

"Men rape within the marriage. Men believe that paying dowry means buying the wife, so they use her anyhow at all times. But no one talks about it." — Uganda

"When my husband died, my in-laws told me to get out. So I came to town and slept on the pavement." — a middle-aged widow in Kenya,

"Rather than suffering from poverty, we should better go sweep up the garbage in other people's houses." — a woman in Moldova

"When I was working I used to decide. When she is working, she owns her money and does anything she wishes." a man from Vila Junqueira, Brazil

"Problems have affected our relationship. The day my husband brings in money we are all right together. The day he stays at home (out of work) we are fighting constantly." a woman from El Gawaber, Egypt

"The unemployed men are frustrated because they no longer can play the part of family providers and protectors. They live on the money made by their wives, and feel humiliated because of this." — an elderly woman, Uchkun village, The Kyrgyz Republic

"When a woman gives her opinion, they [men] make fun of her and don't pay attention." "If women go to a meeting, they don't give their opinion." — a woman in Las Pascuas, Bolivia.


The poor want governments and state institutions to be more accountable to them. Corruption emerges as a key poverty issue.

Corruption emerges as a core poverty issue. Poor people engaged in the study reported hundreds of incidents of corruption as they attempt to seek health care, educate their children, claim social assistance, get paid, attempt to access justice or police protection, and seek to enter the marketplace. In their dealings with officials, poor men and women are subject to insults, rudeness, harassment, and sometimes assault by officials. Harassment of vendors in urban areas is widespread. Poor people's evaluations of institutions that are important in their lives show that while politicians, state officials and public servants are sometimes viewed as important they rarely show up as effective, trustworthy, or participatory. There are exceptions. Provision of basic infrastructure is valued and has made a difference.

"The municipal Congressmen are all thieves … they do not solve anything, there are no schools, no health care. They do not vote issues that interest the people." — Brazil.

"Nobody is able to communicate our problems. Who represents us? Nobody." — discussion group in Foua, Egypt

"If you have no relatives among high government officials, people treat you as second rate. If you have any problems with your business, or get in trouble with the police, you will lose your case and won't have your problems resolved. Those who have power and money will always win." — At Bashi, The Kyrgyz Republic

"We keep hearing about monies that the government allocates for projects, and nothing happens on the ground." — South Africa

"People place their hopes in God, since the government is no longer involved in such matters." — Armenia


"Before everyone could get healthcare, but now everyone just prays to God that they don’t get sick because everywhere they just ask for money." Vares, Bosnia-Herzegovina

"If you don’t know anyone, you will be thrown to the corner of a hospital!" – India

"[I]n the hospitals they don’t provide good care to the indigenous people like they ought to, because of their illiteracy they treat them badly … they give us other medicines that are not for the health problem you have." -- a young man from La Calera, Ecuador


"Teachers do not go to school except when it is time to receive salaries." – Nigeria

"The school was ok, but now it is in shambles, there are no teachers for weeks…. There is no safety and no hygiene." Vila Junqueira, Brazil

"If parents do not meet these payments, which are as high as Rs. 40 to 50 per month, the teachers were reported to beat the student or submit a failing grade for her/him." -- Pakistan


"Where a road passes, development follows right on its heels." Cameroon

"I repeat that we need water as badly as we need air." a woman from Tash-Bulak, The Kyrgyz Republic

"The children keep playing in the sewage." –Sacadura Cabral, Brazil


NGOs seen as important but many unaccountable

Where NGOs are at work in communities they are appreciated, but they are not as present as often believed. In the absence of public services, NGOs fulfill vital roles in the lives of the poor. While there are regional differences, NGOs are often touched by the same problems as the state; the poor feel they are excluded from the decisions of many NGOs and difficulties with accountability and the quality of NGO services and projects are reported.

"Church affiliated entities represent probably the most visible and far reaching safety net presently operating in Benin." — Benin

"Even the non-government initiatives have at best provided marginal access to Gandas (tribals). There has been quite limited participation of Ganda women in the development activities promoted by NGOs." — India

"The most important institution in this community is the one known as Sister Jember's NGO. There are many reasons for saying that: First, as a result of the effort of this institution, children who never would have had the chance to go to school have received schooling free of charge. Second, virtually all the houses of the disabled and weak people in this community have been renovated free of charge by the same institution. Third, all the poor and mostly weak people have received food and clothing from Sister's NGO." — Kebele 30, Ethiopia

"The workers of ECOSAN cut away the labels and distribute it instead of the humanitarian assistance, which they divide between themselves. They laugh at us, when they give us the boots of different sizes or big soldiers trousers. The boots are rather heavy and the soldier's trousers are big—it would be better if they gave us food stuff." —Muinak Town, Uzbekistan

"The poorest of the poor can not get enrolled as a member in the organized group of the NNGO. In the natural disaster, only group members receive relief from NNGO's." — Khaliajuri, Bangladesh, Khaliajuri

"Had it not been for PUSH, we would be dead" — Zambia

"I stopped sending my daughter to the Anganwadi (NGO sponsored by the ICDS (government child care), because they insist on eating the 'Sattu' which is rotten and even the animals will not eat it. My daughter fell sick of diarrhea once after eating it." —Village Jimmaur, India

"The [NGOs] give resources, they undertake research but there were also negative views because some are covers for businesses." — La Matanza, Argentina


The poor rely on informal networks and local institutions to survive, including the local holy man and the local nurse.

Local groups and actors emerge as the key institutions which help out in times of crisis. However, poor people recognize that there are limits to how much "one hungry man can help another hungry man." In many communities facing increased hardship, the poor spoke painfully about the breaking down of kinship ties and community cohesion.

Poor people seek institutions that are "effective," "trustworthy," "uniting," "dependable," "respectful," "courteous," "truthful," "listening," "not corrupt" and "not corrupting." They want to develop their own organizations so they can effectively negotiate fair partnerships with governments, with traders and with NGOs; they want direct assistance and local ownership of funds through community-driven programs, with governments and NGOs accountable to them.

In speaking of the Priest Sergio, "When I need him, he helps … if you have a problem, he solves it." — Morro de Conceicao, Brazil.

"Ivan is almost the only one who gives goods on credit without such humiliating procedure. He owns half shop-half restaurant. The prices in his shop are up to two times higher than in the other ones…He is giving on credit: alcohol, flour, vegetable oil, salt and grocery to the local Roma. Sometimes, when there is some urgency, he also gives money. 'If it is not him, we will die of hunger! — Etropole, Bulgaria

"Whenever there is a funeral, we work together - women draw water, collect firewood and collect maize flour from well-wishers - while men dig grave and bury the dead" — discussion group from Mbwadzulu Village (Mangochi) Malawi

"No one helps, not anyone. I would gladly help someone, but how when I am in need of help myself. This is misery (jad). Our souls, our psyches are dead." — Vares, Bosnia and Herzegovina

"When food was in abundance relatives used to share it. These days of hunger, however, not even relatives would help you by giving you some food." — young man in Nichimishi, Zambia

The Chief was rated highly because he calls them whenever there is something to be discussed and sometimes depending on the issues, the whole community may be invited and each one allowed to express his or her view. — Adaboya, Ghana


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