Aha! – The poor are so smart!

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If you happen to meet someone who recently experienced an interaction with the BOP for the first time, invariably one of the insights they would share is that the poor are really smart. I had this Aha moment in early 2006 when my work at Villgro (formerly known as Rural Innovations Network) took me to the villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh, a state in North India. It was the first time in my life that I was interacting with impoverished farmers. I was touring the villages to better understand the market for an Insect Trap, an innovation incubated at Villgro. The poor inhabitants of these villages, not only amazed me with their understanding on the variety of problems they faced but also with the sheer ingenuity of  some of the solutions they had come up with.

My work at Villgro took me to villages around India and I re-lived this aha moment many times over until I had a much bigger Aha!

What in the world made me assume that the poor are dumb?

Obviously, what I had heard from the villagers was, in most of the cases, just common knowledge for them. In retrospect, I had these big aha’s because at some level I was prejudiced with the assumption that poor people did not know what their problems are,  if they did know about their problems, they were not articulate enough and even if they were articulate, they were not smart enough to solve the problem.

Sometimes our prejudices have a stronger influence on us than we think.  It is shocking to find out that many a times our prejudices dictate our thoughts and actions in spite of what we think we strongly believe in. From my own experience, I know that overcoming these prejudices have gone a long way in making me much more effective at the work I do.

In the fight to end poverty, I strongly believe that overcoming our prejudices about  the poor is as important, if not more, as the different poverty alleviation interventions themselves.

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11 Responses to “Aha! – The poor are so smart!”

  1. Rob Says:

    Suraj, this reminded me of an interview with bottom of the pyramid guru C.K. Prahalad from some years ago. He says:

    We continuously make choices for others, and it’s a very elitist attitude. Who are we to say that a kid shouldn’t have an ice cream or a Coke? Then there’s the other assumption: Poor people make dumb choices. Well, rich people make dumb choices, too. How many times do people buy PDAs that don’t work for them? So, then, my book also asks, Can we just eliminate all this elitism: managers who say, These people don’t matter for me; NGOs who say, These people are my constituency and I can make choices for them? Can we just agree that, if this is an opportunity to change the world, we must come together and not be on opposite sides of the fence?

    I think this is a KEY aspect of working with any customer – rich or poor – that they will not always make the “right” choice and it is up to us as the business to sell to them, convince them that yes, clean water or solar lanterns or doctor-attended births ARE a good choice.

    Anyway, thanks for reminding us all that the poor are NOT dumb but let’s also not forget that all of us – poor and rich alike – have the capacity to make dumb choices.

  2. Suraj Says:

    Rob,

    Thank you for your comment. I completely agree with C.K. Prahalad and you that we have to get rid of our elitist attitudes. You also rightly pointed out that while we must always remember that the ultimate choice should/will be made by the customer (poor or rich,) it is upon us to make other good choices available to them as well.

  3. Santhosh Says:

    Great post Suraj! In fact I would push the envelope a little and say the poor probably make better choices, relatively speaking. With very limited resources and low tolerance for risk, it seems natural that people living in poverty carefully evaluate their decisions and would be smart about it – even more than the rich

  4. Suraj Says:

    Hi Santhosh,

    Thank you for your comment. By any chance would you know of any research that empirically evaluates the difference in ability between the poor and the rich to make (better) decisions?

    Many thanks

  5. Ryan Richards Says:

    Nice post and comments!

    To Santhosh’s point, instead of arguing that the poor make better decisions than the rich in general, I’d bite off a more manageable chunk and argue that the poor make better decisions for themselves than would be made for the poor by an outsider. It took me two years working in Guatemala to learn and internalize this fact, and I’d love to hear any ideas on how we can pass along these lessons to future practitioners.

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  7. johnclifford Says:

    There is a multitude of evidence of top down , NGO imposed solutions that failed to actually serve the local people that was intended in the long term.

    One example is the $15 Million housing settlement built for refugees fleeing Somalia that is unused because the foreign designers failed to understand or ask what type of refugee camp would be acceptable to the government of Kenya and local people living nearby. Building brick homes and schools that were far more deluxe than anything local communities had access to made the foreign solution a bog waste of money as the building sit empty as Kenya refuses to antagonise local residents and fears the incentives such deluxe accommodations would provide Somali’s to stay in Kenya and not return home where it was unlikely they could find or afford any similar quality of housing.In this case the foreign experts with good intentions are the forget to adapt to local cultural standards in providing their solution. Challenge is to see things as the local people do and put yourself in their shoes.

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