Ending poverty is about the politics of power: guest piece for the OECD

December 9, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

This guest rant of mine appeared in the OECD’s Development Cooperation Report 2013, published last week. The report, subtitled ‘Ending Povertydacn nov 2013 dcr‘, is worth a skim – it’s a good survey of current debates on poverty and aid, with contributions from piles of wonks, followed by a donor-by-donor aid overview.

A necessary starting point in any discussion of ending poverty is “What do we mean by poverty?” The answer to that question has proved surprisingly fluid in recent years, as crude income definitions of poverty have come under intellectual challenge from a number of quarters (a recurring theme in this Development Co-operation Report).

As long ago as the 1990s, the World Bank’s ground-breaking Voices of the Poor study uncovered a narrative of anxiety, fear and shame – being poor is worrying about what happens if the rickshaw-driving breadwinner has an accident, if a child gets sick and the hospital charges exorbitant fees, if a daughter gets married, or if someone dies and requires an expensive funeral.

Over the past five years, multiple shocks – financial, food prices, climatic and others – have added to this narrative, driving home the importance of volatility as a source of vulnerability in the lives of poor people. More recently, national governments around the world – supported by the OECD and others – have invested seriously in devising new ways to measure well-being and the multiple aspects of poverty beyond income.

This more sophisticated understanding of the nature of poverty means, alas, that “getting to zero” is a chimera because multidimensional poverty is much broader and more entrenched than mere income poverty. Nevertheless, it takes the development debate in important and positive directions in terms of policy (witness the increased emphasis on smoothing mechanisms such as social protection to combat volatility and vulnerability).

Perhaps more importantly, it encourages us to engage with the essentially political nature of poverty, i.e. seeing poverty in terms of power. The Oxfam book From Poverty to Power explains the underlying process of development as the renegotiation and redistribution of power. Power resembles an invisible force field that both links and influences individuals and social groups. The task of those wishing to promote development is first to make such power visible – by understanding how it operates in each situation – and then to understand how power shifts and can be influenced by aid agencies, political movements or civil society organisations.

Oxfam’s experience suggests that power is renegotiated through a combination of both steady and occasionally abrupt change. Steady change grows out of the daily grind of governance and politics and the wonderfully intense public conversation between citizens’ organisations, faith groups, the private sector, the media, academics and policy makers. It propels evolutionary change: the slow but inexorable transformation of attitudes, such as towards the role of women.

There are also moments of rapid shifts in power, driven by wars, economic crises, failures and scandals. Such shocks often provide crucial windows of opportunity in which decision makers suddenly become open to new ideas and answers. For example, it may well take major climate shocks in high greenhouse gas-emitting countries and a consequent political (and perhaps literal) meltdown to open doors and minds to the kinds of drastic solutions needed to avert catastrophic climate change.

suffragettesSeeing development in terms of a shift from poverty to power induces a welcome sense of optimism. Despite periodic crackdowns by frightened elites, power has indeed been redistributed broadly over the course of the past century: in 1914, only New Zealand, Australia, Finland and Norway allowed women equal voting rights to men; by 1979, a woman’s right to vote had become a universal right under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The assertion of power by people living in poverty is both an end in itself – a crucial kind of freedom – and a means for building social institutions (the state, the market, the community, and the family) that respect people’s rights and meet their needs through laws, rules, policies and day-to-day practices. When individuals join together to challenge discrimination against specific groups – for example, against women, indigenous communities or disabled people – they can transform the institutions that oppress them into ones that serve them.

In contrast to portraying poor people as passive “victims” (of disasters, or poverty, or famine) or as “beneficiaries” (of aid, or social services), this development vision places poor people’s own actions centre stage. In the words of Bangladeshi academic Naila Kabeer, “From a state of powerlessness that manifests itself in a feeling of ‘I cannot’, activism contains an element of collective self-confidence that results in a feeling of ‘We can’.”

The shift from poverty to power is often an extremely local process (even within households, in the case of violence against women), and this raisespoverty-gap important challenges for us as outsiders seeking to promote development in poor countries. It means learning to negotiate the fine line between effectiveness and interference. It also means accepting a more humble role in the drama of development: the primary actors are national and the impacts of outside interventions, for good or ill, are probably less extensive than many of us thought.

Getting anywhere near to ending poverty is an inherently political process. The sooner we do-gooders embrace such an understanding, the more likely we are to provide the sort of support that will make a lasting difference.

December 9, 2013
Duncan Green