Maytree blog

Exploring the role of people with lived experience of poverty in finding solutions to poverty

Published on 24/01/2019

When we started to explore solutions to poverty using a human rights approach, one of the core issues we looked at was the participation of people with lived experience of poverty in the decisions that affect their lives. Any policy-maker needs to ensure that people with lived experience of poverty are part of all stages of the decision-making process; this is one of the basic tenets of a human rights-based approach. But what does this participation – often referred to as “civic engagement” – look like and how has this idea been received?

The idea that people should be directly involved in the decision-making processes that affect their lives is becoming widely accepted; there is less need to convince decision-makers of all stripes of its value.

Over the course of my work on strengthening participation in civic processes that include people with lived experience of poverty, I’ve noticed the increased use of advisory councils and committees, and a greater frequency of consultation processes for everything from poverty reduction and housing strategies to community development and neighbourhood-based programming.

This increase in engagement, whether we call it community engagement, civic engagement or community development, is, at face-value, progress. It is a step toward more participatory and democratic decision-making.

But to what degree has this engagement been meaningful and impactful? What role have people with lived experience of poverty had in these processes?

Participating, but not yet on an equal level

People with lived experience of poverty — a term currently used to identify people who may not hold the same level of or access to power as other stakeholders — are engaged in the decision-making processes that impact their lives in very distinct ways. In some instances, engagement has meant specific consultation activities such as online surveys or questionnaires to inform or validate a strategy. Other times, a small number of conversations or town hall meetings have been held to allow for space for discussions.

But for the most part, engagement continues to be episodic and consultative, and rarely includes any ongoing connections or follow-up on how feedback has been considered or incorporated into the final outcomes.

Engagement processes are also often skewed to value academic and traditional professional expertise. Participants with these kinds of expertise have more opportunities to be involved in deeper discussions. People with lived experience of poverty are often not accorded this same value, rendering their participation and feedback irrelevant to program design or implementation. In these situations, people with lived experience of poverty end up being engaged in a parallel storytelling exercise while traditional policy-makers have meaningful discussions.

Moving beyond mere participation

People with lived experience of poverty are often members of communities that are disproportionately affected by poverty – First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, women, immigrants, people with disabilities, 2SLGBTQ+, and racialized people — and are left out of the traditional systems that design these processes. For an engagement process to be valuable, members of these communities need to be involved in setting the agenda, framing the engagement process, and directing how deeply people can be involved in the decision-making that has a direct impact on their lives.

A rights-based approach to poverty means we value people with lived experience of poverty as experts with valuable knowledge to include in policy discussions. People are treated with dignity and respect, as individuals with the right to be active participants in policy processes, able to engage in a variety of conversations that impact every stage of policy from identification and development to implementation and ongoing evaluation.

Setting the stage for a deeper conversation

As part of Maytree’s efforts to entrench the meaningful participation of people with lived experience of poverty in policy-making, this year we’ll be exploring different examples of rights-based participation through a series on our blog.

Over the course of the year, we’ll be asking lived experts and community allies for their thoughts on what structures and environments are needed for the authentic engagement of lived experts in decision-making processes, as well as the different challenges and opportunities related to meaningful participation.

We’re looking to challenge our thinking and processes, and also confront the difficult power dynamics that arise even with well-intentioned efforts to ensure participation. And we hope to be inspired by the expertise of people and groups who are modeling practices we can all learn from.

Join us in February for the first piece in the series by Maytree Fellow Emily Paradis.

Effie Vlachoyannacos is Lead, Engagement and Leadership at Maytree.

Summary

The idea that people with lived experience of poverty should be directly involved in the decision-making processes that affect their lives is becoming widely accepted. But to what degree has this engagement been meaningful and impactful?