Wed 18 May 2011
There is a great post up at Good on “Pretending to be Poor” experiments, where participants try to live on tiny sums of money (i.e. $1.50/day) to better understand the plight of the global poor. Cord Jefferson refers to this sort of thing as “playing poor”, at least in part because participants don’t really live on $1.50 a day . . . after all, they are probably not abandoning their secure homes, and probably not working the sort of dangerous, difficult job that pays such a tiny amount. Consuming $1.50/day is one thing. Living on it is entirely another. (h/t to Michael Kirkpatrick at Independent Global Citizen for pointing out the post).
This, for me, brings up another issue – the “authenticity” of the experiences many of us have had while doing fieldwork (or working in field programs), an issue that has been amplified by what seems to be the recent discovery of fieldwork by the RCT trials for development crowd (I still can’t get over the idea that they think living among the poor is a revolutionary idea). The whole point of participant observation is to better understand what people do and why they do it by experiencing, to some extent, their context – I find it inordinately difficult to understand how people even begin to meaningfully parse social data without this sort of grounding. In a concrete way, having malaria while in a village does help one come to grips with the challenges this might pose to making a living via agriculture in a rather visceral way. So too, living in a village during a drought that decimated a portion of the harvest, by putting me in a position where I had to go a couple of (intermittent) days without food, and with inadequate food for quite a few more, helped me to come to grips with both the capacity and the limitations of the livelihoods strategies in the villages I write about in Delivering Development, and at least a limited understanding of the feelings of frustration and inadequacy that can arise when things go wrong in rural Africa, even as livelihoods strategies work to prevent the worst outcomes.
But the key part of that last sentence was “at least a limited understanding.” Being there is not the same thing as sharing the experience of poverty, development, or disaster. When I had malaria, I knew what clinics to go to, and I knew that I could afford the best care available in Cape Coast (and that care was very good) – I was not a happy guy on the morning I woke up with my first case, but I also knew where to go, and that the doctor there would treat me comprehensively and I would be fine. So too with the drought – the villages I was living in were, at most, about 5 miles (8km) from a service station with a food mart attached. Even as I went without food for a day, and went a bit hungry for many more, I knew in the back of my mind that if things turned dire, I could walk that distance and purchase all of the food I needed. In other words, I was not really experiencing life in these villages because I couldn’t, unless I was willing to throw away my credit card, empty my bank account, and renounce all of my upper-class and government colleagues and friends. Only then would I have been thrown back on only what I could earn in a day in the villages and the (mostly appalling) care available in the rural clinic north of Eguafo. I was always critically aware of this fact, both in the moment and when writing and speaking about it since. Without that critical awareness, and a willingness to downplay our own (or other’s) desire to frame our work as a heroic narrative, there is a real risk in creating our own versions of “playing poor” as we conduct fieldwork.