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Voices of the Poor – Parmila Das

By Steve Nelson

The landmark Voices of the Poor study, published by the World Bank in 2000, sought the opinions and testimony of 60,000 of the world’s poor through information gathered in small discussion groups.

Parmila Das was one participant profiled in the study. She lived in India and was a widow with two young children. She struggled to survive after her husband’s illness and death drained the family’s last few assets. The family derived its income from the following irregular sources:

  • The children collected and sold firewood, which earned them about $4 per month.
  • In November and January, the family dehusked rice for 1/12 the daily output, which provided their staple food for five months of the year.
  • Parmila worked part-time at a construction site (except during the four-month rainy season), earning about $6 per month.

Altogether, the Das family lived on about $10 per month. Despite this extreme poverty, Parmila had great self-respect and refused to be pitied. She had hopes and dreams, and planned to start a “muri-making” (puffed rice) business. She said, “Even in times of crisis, I held my nerves and did not give in to circumstances.”

As this example illustrates, the poor typically don’t have jobs. Livelihood strategies are precarious and include a patchwork of low paying, dangerous, often backbreaking work for low returns. New research summarized in the recently published book, Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day, found how the poor face a “triple whammy” of low incomes: irregularity, unpredictability, and a lack of financial tools. Opportunity International has learned similar lessons from nearly four decades of meeting the needs of families living in poverty. Opportunity’s banking model targets the poorest and most vulnerable entrepreneurs, providing them with a full range of financial products including loans, savings, training and insurance.

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