I’m headed home from a couple of days at United Nations Week in New York, where I was fortunate to attend several events relating to a review of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals.

The events brought home one very clear fact for me: Western thinking about development is elite-driven. Almost entirely. It’s partly understandable; the primary goal of the Clinton Global Initiative, for example, is getting the rich and powerful to make commitments to save the world in various fashions. While this work is targeted at the poor, their voices are absent in the conversation.

While there is a lot of discussion of the need to capture human capital in developing countries, we didn’t hear from anyone who had actually lived the experience of escaping poverty. We didn’t learn how families survive on $1 a day from people who have no choice but to make it work.

There’s something very discomforting about sitting in a hotel ballroom full of rich people talking about the best ways to help the world’s poorest people when almost none of the latter is present.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy hobnobbing with influential people as much as anybody. I love getting to hear people like Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus speak. I’m still astonished that I got to go. But just as there are limits to what I can tell you about life in central Africa, there are limits to what elites from developing countries can describe about their countries as well.

Rich and poor, privileged and not – the contrasts are rarely clearer than at events like these, where the presence of the poor is limited to pictures in slide shows while wealthy people hobnob over cocktails and abundant buffets.

Am I the only one who would rather hear about what life as a poor woman in Ethiopia is like from an actual poor Ethiopian woman? Wouldn’t she give listeners more insight and perspective than yet another celebrity who’s been “touched by Africa” (and it’s always “Africa,” never the specific country) on a two-week trip organized by a nongovernmental organization and a PR firm?

Couldn’t leaders of small-scale civil society organizations in Pakistan tell us more about their struggles to provide services, promote democracy or build peace than the experts who supposedly know them well? Doesn’t a woman who’s managed to find foster families for hundreds of orphans in her Congolese community know more about accomplishing tasks on a shoestring budget than most of us ever will?

The world’s poorest people aren’t often welcome in these forums. Not really. It’s too bad because ignoring the expertise of the poor – or only considering it when translated by the famous for the masses – hasn’t served them or us very well thus far.

I don’t know what keeps them out of the discussion – culture, language, visa restrictions or just being overlooked. What I do know is that talking about development while excluding from the conversation those who need it most is a mistake. We need the voices of those we want to help.


Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. This column was adapted from her blog, Texas in Africa. She did fieldwork from 2005-07 related to the Congo for her doctoral dissertation, “Authority at ‘Twilight:’ Civil Society, Social Services and the State in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”

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