Using knowledge to empower poor people


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I felt privileged to speak to the freshman class of Princeton University, my alma mater, at the annual “Reflections on Service”  event organized by the Pace Center.  In my speech, I drew on my work on the 2004 World Development Report, Making Service Work for Poor People and since then in South Asia and Africa, as well as my village immersion experience living and working with a woman in Gujarat, India who earns $1.25 a day. 

Both sets of experiences taught me how government programs—in health, education, water, sanitation, agriculture, infrastructure—that are intended to benefit the poor often fail to do so because they are captured by the non-poor who are politically more powerful.  I suggested to the students that, in addition to getting a good education and undertaking volunteer activities, they consider using their education to inform poor people, so that they can bring pressure to bear on politicians for pro-poor reforms.  The two examples I used to illustrate—citizen report cards in Bangalore and public expenditure tracking surveys in Uganda—were from the 1990s; with the penetration of cell phones in Africa and South Asia, getting knowledge to poor people in 2011 should be easier.

The reaction of the students, as well as their palpable enthusiasm for “doing good,” was inspiring.  [Since this is not a group I’m used to addressing, I shared a draft of my speech with someone close in age to the freshmen—my sixteen-year-old daughter—whose main comment was that there were too many facts (“It’ll remind them of a class.  They’ll feel they have to take notes”).  I cut out a few facts.]  Even more inspiring were the four undergraduate panelists who described their programs, ranging from starting an education NGO to running for a local school board to helping at-risk youth with cultural activities.  I left energized by the feeling that, with the combination of talent, drive and commitment of these students—and their peers throughout the world—we can end poverty in Africa and South Asia.


Shanta Devarajan

Teaching Professor of the Practice Chair, International Development Concentration, Georgetown University

Akum George
September 19, 2011

Being an experienced agronomist,I have come across a miraculous plant called Moringa oleifera.This tropical plant is jam packed full of nutrients. Its massive cultivation in Africa beginning in a Country like mine-Cameroon with its vast fertile soils can go a long way to reduce poverty and malnutrition in many parts of Africa.Logging into and can confirm my assertion.
We are seriously considering the possibility of importing improved seeds from India to vulgarize their cultivation and consumption.We wish to use your International forum to help in this great venture.

Joel Violette, Mauritius
December 31, 2014

Great for this sharing...!

Rosemary Nwangwu
April 28, 2013

You are perfectly right in your observation that the non-poor have greater access to resources meant for the poor.
In addution to your suggestion to students to organise the poor through their networks, I believe that orifessionals must also seek ways of impacting their immediate communities and residential areas. We must seek ways of creating 'classes' of catalysts in our towns, villages and communities in order to ensure that the voices of the people we try to help are heard. we must download our knowledge into communities of practice that can see that they work. The poor left on their own cannot be heard as they are already too marginalised. Those of us who research and implement all teh theories, must actively experiment the practicability of these in our immediate communities. Development practices must begin to impact their immediate world and environment. In that way, we will seem less detached from the realities that we try to fix! Hey, you just did that by talking with students!

September 11, 2014

Motivation,enlightenment,life education,need based skills development,multiple choices of labour friendly employment creating environment,transparent and accountable employers will certainly result in economic empowerment of the voiceless,unskilled marginalised men and women in any settings.

Young Chimezirim
December 10, 2014

You are right, education is key for national development and war against the lies of the politics. But, i have a challenge. The youths in my country are chasing after wealth without acquiring the appropriate knowledge for sustenance. Others, do illegal stuffs just to possess wealth. This becomes a problem for the trainers or educators, who have written books and no one wants to read it. They are seen as geeks, people who are not serious and people who are not sharp. it seems like the politicians are winning. As long as i live, we shall educate one at a time.

Malcolm Johnson
September 21, 2021

I think knowledge, teaching, and education are all very important tools in helping to combat poverty. It is thrilling to hear that some of those panelists are actively working to engage the youth in the learning process, and are trying to expand opportunities to those that need them. It is dire that we not only teach the impoverished skills that can help them move up the economic ladder but to teach them wisdom that can make their lives more fulfilling.

-Malcolm Johnson,