Will the poor always be with us?

Well, that’s it for the Manchester conference and this is the last blog I’m going to write. The last soggy vegetables have been cleared away from the tables, and I’m not referring to the academics who took part. British institutional food is a wonder to behold and a nightmare to digest, as a leading Indian poverty researcher complained to me over lunch earlier today: “rice - this is rice?” Or it could have been the carrot cake, or even mashed potato... Read on
Michael Edwards
10 September 2010

Summarizing the huge diversity of papers and positions that have been presented is obviously impossible, but I think a certain sense and spirit have emerged from the conference that is worth recording.  

Somewhat surprisingly (to me), this sense and spirit has less to do with specific policies or targets around poverty and more to do with a broader range of issues concerning poverty’s place in development, and how best to support it. Will the poor always be with us?

I think two different answers to that question emerged from our discussions. The first, which is closely linked to the MDGs and the infrastructure that surrounds them, says that chronic poverty can be eliminated when people who are defined as poor according to certain standard criteria receive sufficient amounts of income and assets, health care and education – so let’s get on with it and provide them. The second focuses on fashioning societies that are prepared to confront the structural conditions that create poverty and inequality as they change over time, involving politics, social struggles and internal direction that cannot simply be ‘supplied.’


I think it is this second approach that came out most strongly in Manchester’s concluding sessions, but it is difficult to see how it could be incorporated into the current machinery of foreign aid, which is “growth-oriented, top-down, ‘we-centered’ and supply-driven” as Anirudh Krishna from Duke University put it in his final remarks. We know that national politics, processes, knowledge and action are what matter, and we know that international support can help these things along (that’s why we can’t give up on the reform of global institutions), but this takes time and patience, a willingness to hand over control, and the humility to accept that there are no simple or universal answers.

What does this mean for the UN General Assembly when it meets in two weeks time? Some delegates thought that the MDGs could be constructively-reformed – for example, by integrating human rights standards throughout (a position outlined by Irene Khan in her presentation), or through the kinds of measures described by Phil Vernon and Deborrah Baksh in their fascinating article on this website. Others thought that this was probably impossible, and that our energies would be better employed by building something fresh, perhaps, as David Hulme concluded, driven by a rebirth of international civil society activism. And a third possibility – shared with me by an anonymous mole of mine in the UK’s Department for International Development – is that foreign aid will revert to a much smaller core of humanitarian assistance and support for basic capacities, stripped of all the paraphernalia of the MDGs.

As Michael Woolcock from the World Bank put it, “something that is just a little bit better than what exists is a better way forward than global best practice” - another grand design that is far distant from ground-level possibilities. But that may not be enough for those who want to ‘solve’ global poverty and hand it like a prize on a plate to their voters, donors or constituents, or to themselves. The danger is that the MDGs will therefore be replaced by a new campaign that is designed and delivered from on high, popular where it matters least and ignored where it matters most. Does that make me sound like Mr. Grumpy? Well if so that’s my right. After all, I come from Manchester. 


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