Poor people are the experts on poverty

If we were doing a research study looking at poverty, who would we turn to for domain expertise? Typically it would be academics, health researchers, urban planners, non-profits, government reps – people deemed by society to have expertise on something even though they may not have experienced it for themselves. 

Participatory research and applied anthropology strive to engage with communities of interest in order to have sustainable, positive impact through projects and policy. “From Input to Influence: Participatory Approaches to Research and Inquiry Into Poverty” (Bennet and Roberts, 2004) outlines the tenets of this approach within the context of a study on poverty:

  • People with direct experience of poverty are actively involved as stakeholders and collaborators, rather than as passive recipients of results or people who something is “done to” and “done for”
  • Their knowledge, realities experiences are integrated into the research process
  • They have more authority, control and influence on how the research is conducted and utilized
  • Participation is optimized along a continuum wherein roles and process are negotiated and clarified from the start
  • Community members shape the agenda and engage as researchers, even though they may not have a particular degree or title
  • Stakeholders are not seen as one homogeneous group of “poor people” but as individuals and groups with varying interests, priorities, values, etc. (there is not just one “voice” of poverty)
  • The participatory process should be negotiated and roles clarified from the start

A project that doesn’t include the community isn’t worth doing. A participatory approach yields a more in-depth, bottom-up understanding of what’s going on. It allows people to form and build upon relationships with each other to create sustainability and a greater sense of community, and builds trust and social capital between researchers and community members. It sets a stage of trust for future projects. It creates more buy-in, ownership and empowerment within marginalized communities, who own the knowledge and results that are produced. 

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