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Reducing Global Poverty - Back to the Future?

When I was a PhD student in the late 1970s I was taught that there was no one route to poverty-reduction, but that since some countries had already reduced poverty pretty well we should learn from their experience. Not exactly rocket science is it? Read on...
Michael Edwards
10 September 2010

The so-called East Asian Tigers, mirrored by Brazil, Botswana, China, Vietnam and a few others in more recent years, tackled their development problems through a combination of strategic direction by their governments, a gradual expansion and opening of their economies to world trade, heavy investments in health and education (as universal as resources would allow), and social contracts between different sectors of society that were strong enough to keep these processes moving forward. The role of international assistance was simply to support these self-directed efforts by helping to fill temporary gaps in resources and protect them from the destabilizing effects of international economic and other shocks.

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Listening to the presentations on day three of the Manchester conference, I have a distinct sense of déjà-vu, since all of them seem to be rejecting the bureaucracy and technocracy that have come to dominate the international poverty-reduction industry in the last twenty years. Rather than fancy innovations, I’m hearing a continual re-affirmation of an older set of ideas and (since one can’t afford to be too romantic about the past), a debate about the unfinished agendas they reveal. Take, for example, a new report from UNRISD in Geneva that was discussed last night, entitled “Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Policy and Politics,” or “how to transform world capitalism” in shorthand as UNRISD’s excellent new director, Sarah Cook, confided to me later in the conference bar. Citing the need to re-distribute resources so that poverty and inequality are attacked together, institutionalize human rights in every area of life, and focus on the quality of economic growth and employment and not just the amounts of these things, it’s a report that draws heavily from recent history but that also re-surfaces some deeper questions about what the “East Asian Miracle” left out.

Notable omissions include the environment, addressing social violence, and – in one of the few conference presentations to take a gendered perspective – the issue of “who cares,” which Naila Kabeer from SOAS raised in her response to the UNRISD report. Citing evidence from India and South Africa, Kabeer explained why increasing women’s paid employment may not result in poverty-reduction, in part because their unpaid work is not factored into the equation, an issue of enormous social significance that has all-but disappeared from the official poverty-reduction debate and is nowhere to be seen in the UN Millennium Development Goals. Given the deep inequalities and injustices created by this omission, one might have thought that they would be front and center in any attempt to reduce poverty and discrimination.

The avuncular Angus Deaton from Princeton University continued the conversation by shredding the credibility of income-based measures of poverty – another old debate that is re-surfacing in the conference with a vengeance. The dapper Deaton (wearing the only bow tie witnessed since Wednesday), achieved the considerable feat of weaving ‘Purchasing Power Parity’ and its limitations into an entertaining presentation. International poverty statistics, he concluded, are basically meaningless (“nonsense on stilts”), because there are no shared consumption patterns between countries on which to base a rigorous comparison. So, “how about we replace all the experts and just ask people how their lives are going?” Even the experts themselves laughed and clapped at that one, which I thought was commendably un-self-interested. The serious point is that such measures are dangerous when applied in practice, and should be replaced by indicators of “multi-dimensional” poverty such as those that have been developed by Sabina Alkire from Oxford University, who was one of the respondents to Deaton’s presentation. UNDP are already using them to improve their next Human Development Index, soon to be released.

In all these respects, maybe the conference has been miss-named. It isn’t so much “what we have learned about poverty” but what we have forgotten that really matters, and what we need to remember, reaffirm, and re-interpret in the different contexts and conditions of today. Poverty-reduction is not a technocratic exercise for billionaires and bureaucrats but an exercise in human solidarity that aims to liberate all of us from conditions of oppression. But what kind of international machinery could possibly encourage such a thing? I feel a fifth and final blog coming on…..

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