Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Portfolios of the Poor" -- active financial lives on $2 per day

I started reading Portfolios of the Poor by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Murdoch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven. I'm not very far in yet but I'm already impressed by their data collection methodology, which involves a "financial diary" kept by the people they study.

Discussing borrowing and lending between families in the third world, they note
Because these activites are "informal" and not written down, they are easy to overlook or hide... It was sobering, then, to find that we would have missed much of the action had we undertaken only single, one-time interviews of each household. Using the South African data, we did a "flow of funds" analysis - comparing all inflows to all outflows of money in each time period for each household - and found that, in the earliest interviews, we were often missing more than half a household's financial activity in a given week.
...The frame-after-frame views revealed much greater levels of financial activity than large surveys usually show, and much more active management of finances... We might have blindly accepted arguments that they are especially eager for loans to run a small business, or that, if offered loans, they would fall rapidly into deep debt...
All of those assumptions are right some of the time. But they are wrong much of the time. Uncorrected, they can mislead businesses that plan strategies to work with households like Hamid and Khadeja's, and misdirect policymakers who design interventions to hasten their escape from poverty. (pp. 12-13)
This might be a shock to Western commentators who want to "empower" the poor that the poor are quite empowered already. A lack of physical resources doesn't always imply lack of mental resources.

On the one hand, this is cause for optimism because those in poverty are already actively working to improve their lives, but on the other, it should cause pessimism about policy attempts which assume that the poor will follow along unquestioning with whatever "development" scheme is foisted onto them. The failure of traditional foreign aid over the last fifty years shows the wisdom of both perspectives.

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