Policies or politics for the poorest?

It’s day two of the Manchester conference, and yes, it is still gray and rainy, the natural camouflage of this city that it wears to disguise its charms. The focus has turned to how poverty can be reduced, especially what the academics call “chronic” poverty which affects at least half-a-billion of the world’s poorest people on an “enduring and persistent basis.” Read on...
Michael Edwards
9 September 2010

A common perception is that the global recession has increased these numbers substantially, but as Duncan Green from Oxfam explained in his refreshingly-honest presentation (“I’m not an academic so I can make massive generalizations and I don’t care”), this may not be true.

“Overall, things aren’t so bad” was his conclusion from a twelve-country study of 2,500 poor households, at least in the sense that things haven’t gotten much worse for people already living on the margins. The figure that has been used by charities to engage with the public around the financial crisis - ‘100 million more people thrown into poverty’- was “just a back-of-the-envelope calculation,” but don’t let that stop you giving! And talking of giving, it seems as though remittances sent home by family members working abroad have held up pretty well.


The crisis has, however, created budget deficits that will inevitably reduce government expenditure in the next 12-24 months, and that will make chronic poverty worse, presumably in the UK too. It has also, as many conference presenters confirmed, tested people’s resilience to the limit and stretched frontline community groups to breaking point. But the more important questions concern how ‘regular’, ongoing chronic poverty can be reduced, since as Ravi Kanbur from Cornell University pointed out, crises of various kinds are a natural feature of all societies, even if we can’t predict exactly when they will hit or what form they will take. The trick is to get ahead of them and put in place measures like safety nets and ring-fenced government funds that can absorb shocks when they occur, and ensure that successful anti-poverty policies and programmes are not knocked off course. One way of financing such things, Kanbur suggested, would be to pre-approve additional lines of credit from the World Bank or some other international institution that countries could draw on very quickly in times of crisis.      

On the question of how to attack long-term, endemic poverty, there’s clearly a consensus emerging already in the conference, or maybe it was there before people arrived, this being a closely-knit academic and policy community. Whether it would be shared if the conference had been held in the USA or China is another matter. The conference has a very ‘Northern European’ feel, despite the presence of delegates from Asia, Africa and Latin America, and so far has given short shrift to the role of business and the market (not a single mention of “philanthrocapitalism” – hooray!). Central to this consensus is the role played by basic social protection (things like social safety-nets, cash transfers, family grants and the like), which almost seems like a new magic bullet, but it is clearly insufficient without what Andrew Shepherd of the Overseas Development Institute described as “transformative economic growth and progressive social change.” And in those respects, building people’s long-term assets is more important than increasing their short-term incomes, assets that include their bargaining capacities, community organizations, access to justice, health and education, as well as to land, livestock, savings and jobs.

Is this going to be enough? Will the right policies really make the difference? Many delegates seem to doubt it, asking recurring questions from the floor about power and politics and how foreign aid (and academic knowledge) engages with those processes. “The real problem”, said Stan Thekakara from Just Change in India this morning, “is that communities have lost the ability to control the factors that affect their lives,” partly, of course, because many of those factors now operate at the national and international levels with no democratic oversight or accountability. So, as Duncan Green posed to this afternoon’s panel of presenters, what are the politics of chronic poverty reduction? Answers on a postcard please to Duncan Green, Oxfam, John Smith House, Oxford. 


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