Thanks to some very big studies, such as the World Bank's Voices of the Poor, which involved 60,000 people in 60 countries, we have a pretty good idea. There's a long list. But near the top in most countries is a desire for a job, better connections to the rest of the world, a reduced threat of violence, and an end to the regular daily humiliations and disrespect that are too often the reality for poor people.
And how is "development" doing at giving people all this? Not so well. For example, donors have tended to focus on poor people as entrepreneurs and assumed that they will want to start their own businesses with access to microfinance, rather than prioritising creating jobs or equipping people to get the jobs that are available. Aid for infrastructure was on the decline for years before the Chinese government stepped in and reawakened interest in the sector. And issues of personal security, of respect and dignity, are very low down the programming agenda for most big agencies.
I am also in the middle of reading More than Good Intentions which makes the very same point when discussing the famous Yunus quote that every person is capable of enterprise, it is just access to money which is the obstacle.
Yunus is a brilliant man, but this romantic point of view is wrong. Survival is one thing; building an enterprise from scratch - especially one profitable enough to sustain borrowing at typical microcredit interest rates - is quite another.
I tend to agree with this line of thought. The very fact that businesses fail here in the United States works to disprove Yunus. That does not mean that access to credit is not important; rather it points to the fact that some are quite happening working in a steady position rather than creating their own enterprise.
Even when we know what will work, want is something which cannot be ignored. It then allows practitioners the ability to craft programs that can appeal to the wants of individuals rather than impose a top-down idea of what is right. External assessments of needs can be useful, but if they do not intersect with wants of a community there will be little or no take-up.