By Gab Oguda
Much has been said about Dr. Auma Obama and her lecture to the people of the Kavirondo Gulf on why her community project will not entertain the handout culture.
I will try to be respectful in my response.
As a scholar of no mean repute, because I believe she acquired her PhD on academic merit, Dr. Auma Obama must have come across Prof. Robert Chambers. Prof. Chambers is, for lack of a better term, the encyclopedia of development scholarship.
The British scholar has been widely regarded as ‘development’s best advocate’, you will never come across a scholar who breaks down global development into tiny chunks like Prof. Chambers does in his infinite scholarly works. This lynch-pin status was gained through the years studying the rural poor in hitherto deprived places all over the world. It helps that he worked in the remote outpost of Maralal, now Samburu County, until 1960, the year Dr. Auma Obama was born.
Prof. Robert Chambers has written extensively on the poverty debate, especially on who defines poverty, and why the question is important in helping to understand how poverty can best be solved. His obsession with this topic emanates from his field experience, mostly in rural Asia and Africa, where ivory-tower elites sit in air-conditioned offices, totally drawn out from the lived experiences of those they intend to intervene on their behalf, not only designing programmes replicated from models outside the community they intend to intervene in, but also approach the intervention from an outsider looking in. Prof. Robert Chambers warns that most of these ivory-tower elites approach poverty eradication with a Messianic mindset – they know it all, they have come to rescue you from the dead, and you have to play ball without asking further questions.
Because this was not supposed to be a lecture, let us cut to the part where Dr. Auma Obama’s approach to poverty eradication is currently receiving a much publicized community backlash. I will try to be brief.
If you forget everything you read here, do not forget that Prof. Robert Chambers categorizes deprivation in six major categories. These are the six different ways to know that someone is deprived and need a development solution that would address their dis-empowerment. One is, obviously, poverty. You lack the financial resources to make ends meet and that puts you in an awkward position to stay alive. Two is social inferiority. When you go to a chief’s barazza and you want to articulate a point, your hand is ignored because you are considered socially inferior to the others in the room and no one cares whether you die or you live. Three is isolation. You live in a remote outpost where newspapers arrive after three months and you have to travel a million kilometers to make an emergency phone call on top of a tree. The fourth characteristic of a deprived person is physical weakness, or sometimes, powerlessness. You suffer from a terminal illness which renders your body infirm, or you are severely disabled you need 24 hour toilet support, you lack influence and its difficult for you to organize or bargain. Five, and we are almost done, is what Prof. Chambers calls vulnerability. These are people who cannot defend themselves, in public or private, including but not limited to victims of intimate partner violence, ethnic wars, etc.
The last indicator of deprivation is what Prof. Chambers calls humiliation. Chambers says, and this must have been addressed to Dr. Auma Obama, and I quote, that; “self-respect, with freedom from dependence, is perhaps the most overlooked and highly undervalued by development professionals. Indira Hirway in Gujarat found that poor people disliked taking on debts because what followed from them included undignified manipulation of various forms, including, but not limited to, touching the feet of the lenders and swallowing abuses and insults.”
Prof. Chambers adds, and I couldn’t agree more, that poor people have many priorities. What matters most to them often differs from what outsiders assume. If poor people’s realities are to come first, development professionals have to be sensitive, have to decentralize and empower, to enable poor people to conduct their own analysis and express their own multiple priorities without being subjected to undue patronage from ivory-tower experts mostly with condescending attitude and know-it-all participatory approaches.
The long and short of this is that Dr. Auma Obama is being asked to stop acting like the Patron Saint of poverty eradication, because poor people have dignity.
That must be respected at all times.