Ben Leo at ONE.org (formerly of CGD) put forth an intriguing proposal recently on Huffington Post Impact: It’s Time to Ask the World’s Poor What They Really Want.  In short, Ben is trying to argue that the current top-down definition of development goals, no matter how well-intentioned, is unlikely to reflect the views of the people these development goals are meant to benefit.

Hear, hear.  I made a similar point in Delivering Development. Actually, that sort of was one of the main points of the book.  See also my articles here and here.

But I am concerned that Leo is representing this effort a little too idealistically.  Just because we decide to ask people what they want doesn’t mean that we will really find out what they want.  Getting to this sort of information has everything to do with asking the right questions in the right way – there is no silver bullet for participation that will ensure that everyone’s voices will be heard.  To that end, what worries me here is that Ben does not explain exactly how ONE plans to develop the standardized survey they will put out there, or how exactly they will administer this survey.  So, here are a few preliminary questions for Ben and the ONE team:

1)   Does a standardized survey make sense? Given the very different challenges that people face around the world, and the highly variable capacity of people to deal with those challenges, it seems to me that going standardized is going to result in one of two outcomes: either you ask focused questions that only partially capture the challenges facing most people, or you ask really general questions that basically capture the suite of challenges we see globally, but do so in a manner that is so vague as to be unactionable.  How will ONE thread this needle?

2)   Who is designing the survey? To my point above, what questions are asked determine who will answer, and therefore determines what you will learn.  While the information gleaned from this sort of survey is likely to be very interesting, it is not the same thing as an open participatory process – full participation includes defining the questions, not just the answers.  Indeed, I would suggest that ONE needs to ditch the term participatory here, as in the end I fear it will be misleading.

3)   How will you administer the survey? Going out with enumerators takes a lot of time and money, and is subject to “investigator bias” – that is, the simple problem that some enumerators will do their job in a different manner than others, thus getting you different kinds/qualities of answers to the same questions.  On the other hand, if you are reliant on mobile technology, how will you incentivize those rural populations with mobile handsets to participate?  If you can’t do this, you will end up with a highly unrepresentative sample, making the results far less useful.

This is not to dismiss the effort Ben is spearheading – indeed, it is fantastic to see a visible organization make this argument and take concrete steps to actually get the voices of the global poor into the agenda-setting exercises.  However, this is not a participatory process – it is, instead, an information-driven process (which is good) that is largely shaped by the folks at ONE in the name of the global poor.  If ONE wants this to be more than information-driven, it needs to think about how it is going to let a representative sample of the global poor define the questions as well as the answers.  That is no easy task.

In all sincerity, I am happy to talk this through with anyone who is interested – I do think it is a good idea in principle, but execution is everything if you want it to be more than a publicity stunt…