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Why aren’t ‘Diaries of the Poor’ a standard research tool?

Duncan Green's picture

I’ve been having lots of buzzy conversations about diaries recently. Not my own (haven’t done that since I was a teenager), but diaries as a research method. The initial idea came from one of my all-time favourite bits of bottom-up research, the book Portfolios of the Poor. Here are the relevant paras from my review:

‘A financial fly-on-the-wall account of how poor people manage money. To find out, the researchers set up ‘financial diaries’ with 250 households in selected communities in 3 countries (Bangladesh, India and South Africa). For a year, researchers visited every fortnight and picked over people’s financial affairs. The book then assimilates the findings, and intersperses them with unmistakably real-life examples from among the 250 households (‘Pumza is a sheep intestine seller living in the crowded urban hostels of Cape Town……’)


The first and perhaps most striking finding is the sheer complexity, scale and variety of poor people’s financial activity. People living in poverty need financial skills more than the better off. Just to get by from day to day, they borrow, save, and exchange cash with a huge variety of friends, family, neighbours and institutions, both formal and informal. These last include savings clubs, savings-and-loan clubs, insurance clubs, microfinance institutions, and banks. ‘At any one time, the average poor household has a fistful of financial relationships on the go.’ Every one of the 250 households had both savings and debt of some sort, and no household used fewer than four types of financial instrument over the course of the year. Rural households have turnovers (i.e. total cash flows in or out) between 10 and 30 times greater than their asset value at the end of the year.’


That was 2009, and the book’s been at the back of my mind ever since, but has recently come up when discussing entirely different issues. Why not use the same approach – deep, fine-grained observation of how poor people actually lead their lives, with researchers building up relationships of trust through repeated visits and conversations – on, say, how poor people access justice, or experience the state, or the environment? Or how they understand health and deal with people getting sick?

The new research consortium on empowerment and accountability in fragile and conflict settings has picked this up, so it looks like we can run some pilots to develop a methodology – v exciting.

To do it, you need sharp, respectful researchers able to go back to the same households repeatedly over a year or two. Aka students – a Masters student could easily use this as a topic for a dissertation, and receive a stipend that would help them through college. So the approach would lend itself to a partnership with a local university, which can find, say, 10 students who take on 10 families each.

But it could also go further than Portfolios of the Poor in terms of agency. Rather than the researcher coming for their fortnightly download over a cup of tea, the family itself could be asked to record their impressions and experiences – perhaps with a video diary on a phone or flip cam, and then the researcher could come and triangulate that material with their own conversation.

My colleague Irene Guijt was unconvinced by this (and coined the wonderful acronym IIMBSD – If I May Be So Dutch in her reply). What’s the benefit of all this research she asked, either for improving the actions of outsiders or to the people themselves? Provisional answers:

For aid agencies and governments: Portfolios of the Poor was designed to identify where poor people already had all the financial products they needed, and where new market-based mechanisms might help (it turned out people were fine on short-term savings, but had a gap on long-term provision on things like pensions). The governance equivalent would be to identify what institutions (formal and informal) actually matter to poor families – a pretty good starting point for thinking who to partner with, for example.

Poor people would benefit because the research, especially if it focuses on agency, can be empowering in itself – being listened to respectfully, the act of recording and analysing your own interactions with authority. The chair of the research consortium, John Gaventa, made his name doing exactly this kind of thing in the Appalachians in the 1970s – working with poor families to research who owned their land, with transformative impacts on social organization. Looks like we may be coming full circle.

So I’ll end with the usual questions – what am I missing? Where has it happened already? What do you think?

This post originally appeared on "From Poverty to Power."

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