From left to right: Undersecretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Sha Zukang, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Permanent Representative of Brazil to the U.N. Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti during the launch of "Rio+20: The Future We Want." Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / UN

World leaders and development experts often purport to know what the world’s poorest citizens want. But do they really? This question has become more urgent as we gear up for Rio+20, the June gathering in Brazil that is expected to shape a post-2015 framework for international cooperation.

In a recent guest opinion for Devex, Ben Leo, ONE’s global policy director, proposed what seems like an obvious approach to international cooperation: Ask those you are trying to serve what they really want.

The idea sparked an intense debate among Devex readers — comments ranged from “Lamentable” and “Talk’s cheap!” to “This is so right!”

The idea of letting aid recipients drive their own development isn’t new, of course. It’s a pillar of aid effectiveness agreements reached since 2005 in Paris, in Accra and, last December, in Busan, and it’s been key to the success of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Millennium Challenge Corp. Donors are increasingly pushing partners to “own” their development priorities, strategy and implementation, while they — the donors — funnel more money through country systems and focus their own work on helping to build the local capacity and institutions needed to sustain growth.

But has this strategy really improved outcomes — at least so far? And what would it mean if poor people themselves determined the development agenda?

Ask Sander Martijn, a Devex reader who commented on Leo’s Devex op-ed. Prior to the 2010 earthquake, Martijn suggested, Haitians may have called for more investments in education when spending on infrastructure would in fact have been more useful in responding to the quake and subsequent cholera epidemics.

“We should pay attention to their needs and their culture, and work to help them without impressing our culture or values on them,” Martijn concluded, “but it is also important to use an educated judgement on what is most important and when.”

Enrique Carrasco had a similar take.

“The idea of surveying marginalized persons has immediate intuitive appeal,” he noted. “However, let’s not forget the phenomenon of adaptive preferences. This might explain why those surveyed did not rank health or education very highly — because they have adapted to their deprivation.”

To be sure, the voices of aid recipients do factor into the crafting of aid priorities in a variety of ways. The International Fund for Agricultural Development, for instance, consulted with regular citizens in the developing world for its 2011 Rural Poverty Report, notes Devex reader Amélie Solal-Céligny.

“As a result, the report presents the challenges as defined by the poor themselves, and proposes some concrete actions,” she said. “This kind of approach is a good way of giving a voice to the poor and should be replicated more often.”

The work by Massachusetts-based nonprofit CDA Collaborative Learning Projects is another example of how surveying aid recipients may inform the international agenda.

“Their ‘Listening Project’ has already gathered the views of ordinary people on how aid is delivered in many parts of the world,” wrote Paul Greener, another Devex reader, online.

So while — as we reported this week — Switzerland pushes for a “green economy roadmap” in Rio and others push for a focus on good governance, while Australian lawmakers debate boosting aid to Afghanistan and while U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron renew their commitment to global development, it may be time to find more meaningful ways to regularly engage aid recipients in this conversation.

Yula Mediavillo contributed reporting.

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About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.