03 May 2012 ~ 4 Comments

So, you’re helping people with “no skills”…?!

Tonight was a reminder for me that our vocabulary reflects our biases. OK, so maybe I am too sensitive about development vocabulary (say “villagers” around me, and I turn green!), but saying you are helping people with “no skills” really irks me. Have you told these people that you are “helping” that you think they have “no skills”?

And, if I can picture these skill-less people you speak of as you stand there in your suit, I imagine they can grow food we only know how to pick off of a shelf, perhaps build their own home, and fix the limited electronic items they have – ones we would throw away because we wouldn’t even know where to start in opening them up!

It reminds me of the lady in Colombia last month who asked me where I was from. When I said “America”, she said “Me too!”, and I thought she was joking with me, as she was clearly from Colombia. It took me a while to realize my biased view of the world and correct myself. “I’m from the United States of America”, it turns out, as she was indeed from America too. My myopic world view biases exposed – touche.

The people who made the “no skills” comments at Oxford’s heated “Bottom of the Pyramid Debate” tonight equally had not intended to offend, and certainly were passionate about the work they were involved in, but it still struck me: if we see the people we are working with in this type of work as having “no skills” we’re clearly taking a myopic view of what skills are important to survive in this world.  Drop me in a developing country, in a community without electricity, with no job, and many kids to feed, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the skills to survive. I bet the “villagers” (yep, I feel sick!) in that community would indeed describe me as having “no skills” at all… and in their world, they’d be right.

And since these BoP initiatives ARE in “their world”, maybe it is our skill-less-ness that we need to be making more note of!

(Thanks for permitting me this rant. OK, I’ve dismounted from my higher-than-it-should-be horse. Off to bed!)


Addition (2 days later): Today I was reading “Next Generation Business Strategies For the Base of the Pyramid” by London & Hart and this paragraph struck me as more eloquently reflecting my thoughts from above:

Unfortunately, too many managers and development professionals fail to recognize and calibrate for their existing biases about the BoP [Base of the Pyramid]. One good test of this is to ask them to articulate the first references that come to mind when they think about the “BoP”. Some are surprisingly disrespectful of the members of the BoP community, saying something along the lines of “The poor are lazy, lack intelligence, or are helpless; if they were not, they would not be poor.” Other descriptions focus less on individual shortcomings and more on structural disadvantages. Here you might hear terms such as “uneducated”, “limited resources,” or “isolated from opportunities.” While more charitable, this latter view still fails to recognize the poor as having the capacity to productively participate in the venture-development process as thoughtful colleagues and resourceful experts. People who are characterized as uneducated, limited, or isolated are unlikely to be viewed as strong potential partners in a design process.

  • http://twitter.com/pandpvolunteer people and places

    Well said…well said… well said – 

  • Sarah V

    On point!!

  • Michael Hendrickx

    Agreed wholeheartedly. “isolated from opportunities” is indeed very contextual.  Perhaps we (in the developed world) confuse opportunities with proven business ventures? 

  • http://www.africanvillageschool.org.uk/ lynn nestor

    Amazingly accurate – having had the privilege of living in a community exactly as described above I was charitably known for years as “just a pretty face” (a very flattering description incidentally!!!) ie nice but skill less!! For the last 10 years we have been working alongside that community and I have learnt so much from exceptionally skilled people I now know how to build, breed animals, cook, plough, plant, sow and harvest,patience, respect my elders, negotiate and resolve issues amongst many, many other things not bad for a girl from a very “developed” South London background whose nearest shop is next door to her centrally heated electrified 3 up and 3 down! I am just about now “NOT just a pretty face” but it would take me another life time to refine this new skill base to be just half as competent as the rest of my community and that includes the children!