Listening to the voices of the poor

As a medical student, I’ve spent four years studying the human body, learning fact upon fact about pathophysiology and the treatment of disease, and gaining the knowledge needed eventually serve as a doctor.  The end result is that nearly every American medical student graduates with the technical capacity to manage disease; however, while nearly all medical students are well prepared to be technicians we are not all prepared to be physicians.   In my opinion what separates the physicians from technicians is the the ability and willingness to listen.

I find within the NGO sector there is a similar divide amongst development workers.  There are those who merely plan and devise technocratic instruments for development and those who seek to truly listen and understand the underserved communities in which we work.

Out of all the services that an NGO can provide, perhaps the most vitally important is listening and responding to the poor.  Some will claim that poverty is voicelessness; but the poor do not lack a voice, they lack someone to listen.  Our capitalist markets do not listen, because the poor lack the money to motivate them to do so.  Similarly our governments appear to only respond to the interests of the powerful and the moneyed, only responding minimally to the needs of the poor when they threaten to erupt into social unrest.  This leaves NGOs as one of the few sectors of society that is well-positioned and motivated to listen to the poor.

Unfortunately, my day-to-day experience in the NGO world has left me slightly jaded at the commitment of many organizations to this service.  So much time is consumed generating documents filled with useless jargon such as “community mobilization,” “sustainability” and “capacity building.”  Meetings focus on which organization ‘owns’ a project or the best ‘strategy’ to grow the organization.   And many work days are spent planning our next anthropological foray into the “field.”  While all this work is necessary, often, lost and obscured within all of this is the voice and needs of the poor.

The most talented professionals that I have worked with in the development sector possess the same skill as the most talented physicians that I have worked with: the ability to listen.  They are the individuals capable of placing on the side all of the “serious business” and who take the time to listen to the voices of those they serve.   They take the time to sit, to observe, and to listen in order to understand the tremendous reservoir of strength present in every human community and the tremendous barriers to a better life faced by the poor and marginalized.  And then when they have gained an understanding of the needs and desires of the poor, they use their position within an NGO to give a voice to the poor and what they have come to understand.

This year presents me with a tremendous opportunity for growth; to become a development professional who listens and gives voice to the poor and return home as a medical student prepared to be a physician who listens and responds to the needs of my patients.

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