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How to write about poor people

  1. world-bank-poverty-numberUse a precise definition of poverty: living on less than $1.25 a day, adjusted for purchasing power. Give the precise number who fit that definition.
  2. Ignore the recent revision of  this number by 42%.
  3. Do not excessively analyze geographic or ethnographic distinctions amongst poor people.blank-world-map
  4. Discuss the following: poverty traps, vicious circles, aid financing gaps.
  5. There probably won’t be time left to discuss the following concepts: initiative, savings, inventiveness, resourcefulness, adaptation to local conditions, or local knowledge.
  6. Discuss only income, health, access to clean water, and literacy. Leave it to anthropologists to cover areas like happiness, traditions, ceremonies, festivals, friendships, kinship, love between men and women, or love between parents and children.
  7. ug2_palenga_2boys_05Display pictures of poor children (alternatively women).
  8. Don’t show pictures of poor men, who make your audience think of drunkards, wife-beaters, or janjaweed.
  9. These topics are only for Marxists: power, class, discrimination, oppression, or history.
  10. Your knowledge about poor people should come from other writers who observe these rules.
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  1. Smee wrote:

    Just wanted to make sure this was supposed to be read in a voice of irony? – (just to be 100% sure.)

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 12:35 am | Permalink
  2. p wrote:

    And the love between men and men, or women and women?

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 12:55 am | Permalink
  3. Adam wrote:

    Smee – I don’t know William but, being British and hence possessing a keen sense of irony and sarcasm, I can confirm this.

    Point number 9 made me laugh out loud. Funny because it’s true.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 1:00 am | Permalink
  4. Steve wrote:

    You write a lot of good satire, but this stuff just isn’t that funny.

    It’s also not relevant or ridiculous enough to make people rethink their beliefs. I’m one of the people whose supposed to learn something (I don’t like anthropologists or Marxists and like pragmatic politics/marketing), but I don’t know what to think.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 1:57 am | Permalink
  5. Zeynep wrote:

    Is this the 10-step guide World Bank employees rely on?
    Funny. I like #10. Holds extraordinary powers when it comes to deciphering WB reports.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 2:51 am | Permalink
  6. C A A wrote:

    Once you take into account point number 6 and 9, give country studies and draw conclusions while seated on pedestals, such as corruption is endemic in poor countries, and especially in Africa.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 5:23 am | Permalink
  7. Hafiz wrote:

    I like the map. pooristan ftw!

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 6:47 am | Permalink
  8. William Easterly wrote:

    Unconfirmed sources report that there was indeed some faint satirical intention here

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  9. AB wrote:

    As one who writes about poor people (among other things) for a living, could I respectfully suggest these additions to a helpful list?

    11. Assume that all poor people everywhere have the same interests and views on all subjects.
    12. You can take the views of Western-based NGOs as a perfect proxy for the composite opinions noted in 11.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  10. Homira wrote:

    Okay, with all due respect Bill, people are trippin’ a little here. Anyone who’s been in the field for a reasonable amount of time would seriously challenge you on developing metrics to measure “areas like happiness, traditions, ceremonies, festivals, friendships, kinship, love between men and women, or love between parents and children”. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? If we can master giving all humans those basics, then sure, we can move on to the ones you suggest, and don’t give me the Bhutan example, which is cute and cuddly, but not exactly evidence-based. And I’m sick and tired of the World Bank bashing. I’m well aware of our faults and am strong internal critic myself, but at least we put our data and evaluations out there, unlike many other bilateral and multilateral organizations. How about some suggestions on how the next UNICEF MIC can collect these indicators you and your readers advocate?

    Posted December 29, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  11. William Easterly wrote:


    who said anything about metrics? The point of this exercise is that some who write about “the poor” and who work on helping “the poor” really need to change some attitudes: condescension, arrogance, hubris, superiority, etc.

    I sympathize with your impatience about generic “Bank bashing”. “Bashing” should have a point and try to induce change. And praise is OK as an inducement to change also, unfortunately the things to bash still outnumber the things to praise.

    best, Bill

    Posted December 29, 2009 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  12. stephane ferey wrote:

    what the definition of poor, the general on of less than 1.25€ a day, or an orphan full of kids whom parents a re in jail for life sentence or dead in some country where there is no government subventions, not talking too much about the condition of those orphans, kids have not even shampoo nor soap for there basic hygiene, if at least they have toilet paper… i personally believe that the only way to understand what is all that about, it is to go to the field, to live with them, to listen to them… to understand them.

    best regards and happy new year.

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 6:38 am | Permalink
  13. Homira wrote:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the quick response, and apologies if I was too abrupt. But just the statistic of 1.25€/day is a metric. Your point on attitudes of those who write about the poor is spot-on, but maybe I’m reading different stuff. As a knowledge and learning manager, I do agree whole-heartedly that Bank reports are generally poorly written (ouch!), and I challenge our institutional culture constantly. The fact that I still work at the Bank in spite of being a outspoken gadfly is testimony to the Bank’s tolerance. My biggest peeve is how boring Bankese writing and oversanitization makes really compelling work/findings.

    Regarding praise vs. opprobrium, yes, there is more to criticize than compliment, but that’s part of our world in general – not just the Bank. I love what Stephane Ferey wrote about living with the poor, which reminds me of one of my favorite Lao Tzu quotes:

    “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say “We have done this ourselves”.”

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  14. margaret wrote:

    You forgot to mention that in the photos, it is preferable if the children are not wearing clothes!

    Posted December 31, 2009 at 7:01 am | Permalink
  15. Ms Mona wrote:

    My work doesn’t deal with foreign aid issues and I’ve no background in economic studies, but I believe that Homira’s quote of Lao Tzu hits the nail on the head!

    My work centers on McDowell County, WV and it’s tough. Corruption is everywhere… …most aid workers feel that their “cause” is the most important cause of the day…money pours in, money pours out, but, for the most part, the living conditions aren’t improving….and the pictures! did I mention the pictures?? (yes, oddly enough, I’m still referring to domestic aid issues)

    So here’s what I know of writing about the poor (and having actually been poor for a portion of my life, I should have at least a bit of insight): eh, not so much.

    I’ve been distanced enough from the poverty to see that it’s wrong, yet close enough to it to want to make a difference. But, trust me on this, when you’re poor and your neighbors are poor and their neighbors are poor and basically the entire village, i mean, community is poor, you really don’t grasp that you’re poor. Well, until someone outside the village, i mean, Com-mun-i-ty, tells you how poor you are! So, all of these articles on how to help the poor, what the poor need, what the poor want, why don’t the poor want more, and, of course, where do all these poor people come from in the first place….well, they’re important! Let’s face it, we need rich, educated people to read them and gasp with shock and write checks to help the poor! And, it works! Okay, it doesn’t really work. But it sounds good and at least some of that money is making a difference…somewhere…

    I really appreciate what Stephane wrote. It’s just seems surreal sometimes to step back and forth between the two worlds. Honestly, to whip out my crackberry in a backwoods hollow trying to grab enough signal to check e-mail can be mind-boggling!

    ….so much for #10!

    Posted January 3, 2010 at 11:50 pm | Permalink
  16. TA wrote:

    Beyond metrics and praise vs. ‘opprobium’ – is that really a word; one thing stands out in the conversation between the William and Homira and that’s the ‘Bank’ doesn’t speak our language. I read his post and understood the irony of it right away, I read Homira’s post and she’s talking about Bhutan and Maslow. Without a degree in development economics I can readily grasp what William’s post was about, with Homira’s, I’m running to my developments texts. And I’m not bank bashing here!

    Posted January 5, 2010 at 1:05 am | Permalink
  17. Peter wrote:

    ‘How to write about the poor’ misses out the important lessons contained in the opening of William Easterly’s ‘The White Man’s Burden.’ They are: do not get out of the vehicle to speak to them in person; hear about them as individuals by watching them on BBC News instead; dedicate your book to them.

    Posted January 5, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

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