This post is part of our ‘When it clicked’ series. They are stories from people working within the ‘international development’ sector who want to share their experience of challenging the dominant narrative around poverty and development, how it felt and why it’s important to question. Find out more about it here.

Funny to be asked to share what I have experienced about being a “challenger”. Funny because it’s only recently that I have found true allies who understand what I’ve been dealing with for most of my professional career in the UN system (25+years). It’s a bit strange to actually be asked to write something about my experience of challenging the “dominant narrative about poverty and development” as I have never really wanted to “rock the boat” and although I have always said what I felt was needed to say, I never saw it as a way to be “challenging”. Rather in my ever optimistic and integrity focused soul I viewed talking about what I studied, understood and knew about poverty as simply part of my job as a social scientist. It’s only now that I realize that yes, I must have been “challenging the dominant narrative” and I must have really been a pain in the neck for most of my colleagues. Perhaps I still am….

I am an original “third culture kid” and I identify with Earth, the planet as a whole, as my home. I’ve lived all over the world—went to 15 schools on 3 continents in 5 languages before I was 16 and basically grew up in some of the (then) poorest countries in the world (my father was a forest management specialist and worked for FAO). So poverty was always part of my life. Since the age of ten when we lived in Chile and I saw people living under billboards as their homes, poverty has been my focus. Poverty influenced all my life—I became a sociologist to understand poverty—and to find ways to end, alleviate and eradicate it. I listened to the stories of the poor, learned the various schools of thought about poverty, did research on poverty and as a professor of sociology I shared the psychology, political economy, and social construct of poverty.

Given all of this I thought that in my various jobs in the UN system—whether as a staff scientist working on global drug policy and the social determinants of health in WHO, or evaluating the management of global food standards setting in FAO and Codex Alimentarious, or seeking to monitor accountability in UNDP and UNICEF, somehow I believed my jobs were all designed to add a little bit to efforts to reduce the experience of poverty for some people in some places around the world. I thought I could offer insights about how complex social systems, unintended consequences, social dynamics etc. all were related to the social “dynamic” labeled as “poverty”. In essence I believed, and still do believe, that social science, good research, rigorous data, and honest, straight forward views of “poverty” was (and is) a worthwhile endeavor.

I still believe that we need to continue to explore and develop the tools needed so that we can learn more about how people create poverty for others, and how people experience poverty in different places and at different times. I believe that by understanding human cultures we can better understand the various faces of poverty and understand what “development’ means to people—and that yes, “development” has led to greater poverty for some people. I believe we need to respect all the various ways that people live their lives and we need to keep seeking ways to assist, support, influence and honor the desire for a good, healthy and safe life that most humans I have met, desire. I believe we need to dive deeply into the “social reality” of poverty if we really want to end it.

And I thought that my colleagues in UN organizations believed in the same values. Well, I used to believe that….

I believed that until I was asked to leave an evaluation meeting in FAO because I was asking too many questions about how a new industrial poultry policy (a World Bank initiative) would affect women’s livelihoods in Ghana. Or when a colleague in WHO told me that I was “making things too complicated” when I asked about the relationship of urban poverty to the spread of SARS. Or when eyes rolled when I said we need to view discussions of climate change adaptation as issues of social equity and social change and the cultural context of any “adaptation” was critical to understanding project implementation—rather than “scaling up” a single “best practice”. Or when I asked—and still do—whether statistical methods and quantitative indictors are really viable ways to understand the reality of poverty for billions of people living in millions of small villages around the world.

In short, my “challenge” has been that I am a scientist with integrity that studies complex social systems in a world that only really wants a single answer, simple causes and no tough questions.

Maybe someday understanding the deep, dynamic complexities of social life—and of poverty—will be an accepted topic to discuss.

I hope so….as we now have the SDG’s to contend with.

This article was written by a long-time insider at the United Nations who has worked for decades on social metrics associated with global poverty and societal well-being.

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