Deepmala 35 – Listening to the Poor

I remember giving a lecture in Hindustan Lever Research Centre in 1978. Dr. Menon, the Director of the Centre, introduced me to the audience, but he did it in an unusual way. He said ‘Mashelkar’s biodata is well known. I need not read it out to you. But there is one great quality of the man the biodata does not include. I found during the day that he is a great listener’. I was rather surprised to hear this remark. Later I asked him as to why he said what he said. His response was ‘Very rarely do I meet people who are not interested in only listening to themselves. Very few realise that good learning can come only through good listening. You have that quality’. This observation set me thinking about this importance of this process of listening in one’s life.

Listening is the first activity in the complex process called interaction with the external universe. It is listening that creates a bond for us with the world around. Learning cannot happen without attentive listening. A baby listens to its mother’s speaking for days and months religiously and picks up her language. Later it speaks fluently its mother tongue

Attentive listening is a complex neurological activity with a purpose. The words through the ears reach the brain for a complex but quick processing and the results on the person are amazing. Attentive listening delves deep into the words and sentences to fishout the metaphoric or figurative meanings. Active listening is a difficult exercise, more difficult than what we assume it to be because human thinking is much faster a capacity than listening.

Listening to the teachers, to the elders, to the leaders is something that we understand well. But do we understand what we mean by ‘listening to the poor’ and what benefits this can entail in the development process? Let me explain.
Effective communication involves listening as well as talking – a simple truth too often overlooked in development work. People who work for donor governments, multilateral institutions, and developing-country governments recognise that there is much knowledge that the poor do not processes. But in their eagerness to give them this knowledge, they forget that the poor know a great deal that they do not. Like all people, the poor know their own circumstances, their own needs, and their own worries and aspirations better than anybody. They often have information about where they live – whether savanna or slum – that is not readily apparent to outsiders.

Listening to the poor means more than simply showing up and asking what is on their minds – although this, too, can be worthwhile. It means giving the poor the means to speak, through schooling and communications. It means learning systematically from household surveys and other instruments and incorporating what is learned in the design of policy. It also means involving beneficiaries in project design and implementation. By listening and by responding in ways that show that they have heard, donors and governments alike increase the odds that they will earn the trust of those they are trying to help. Trust is important to the poor as they select, apply, and adapt the knowledge most appropriate to their circumstances. If we give the poor vice, if we learn about the poor from the poor, if we communicate through local channels, and if we provide the information the poor need then we can really make a difference.