How have a series of global shocks changed the way we think about development?

May 9, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

This piece appears in today’s Ottawa Citizen

The past five years has been a period of extraordinary global turbulence.

The turmoil has struck as three “shocks” — the financial crisis, a breakdown in the world food system, and the Arab Spring — combined with a slow motion train wreck in the form of the seemingly inexorable onset of chaotic climate change. Together, these are having a profound impact on our understanding of how the world works.

Just how much has changed was one of the overriding impressions from updating my book From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World, first published in 2008.

The global financial crisis was a watershed event. It triggered historic geopolitical change in the rise of the emerging powers such as China and India. Itglobal financial crisis also drew attention to the risks of an excessively “financialized” global economy; but it failed to lead to a reining in of the excessive size and volatility of “hot money,” condemning us to future financial crises, possibly starting with Europe in the coming months.

Simultaneous with the financial crisis, the world witnessed a food price spike. In many countries this traumatized the lives of poor people to a much greater extent than the shenanigans on Wall Street, and reversed decades of low and falling prices, threatening long-term progress on hunger and nutrition. That has led to renewed attention to the basic issues of food and hunger, and some unfortunate side effects such as “land grabs” across the developing world by investors from rich countries.

The Arab Spring confirmed the importance of active citizens in driving social and political change, and made us think much harder about the role of women (who were very active) in majority-Muslim societies.

Taken together, these events have made us much more aware of the impact of volatility, risk and vulnerability on the lives of poor people. That leads both to a focus on trying to prevent shocks from occurring in the first place and to dampen their impacts when they occur. “Shock absorbers,” from social protection to food reserves, to help for poor farmers to adapt to climate change, have become a much more central part of development thinking.

Inequality and redistribution have become mainstream debates, with even the International Monetary Fund weighing in on how high levels of inequality imperil both growth and stability. And the levels are breathtaking. I recently calculated that the amount the world’s richest 100 people added to their wealth in 2012 ($240 billion) would be enough to end extreme poverty for the 1.4 billion people living below the international $1.25 a day poverty line ($66 billion according to the Brookings Institution), four times over! With that focus has come renewed interest in how tax systems and reforms can reduce or exacerbate inequality, both at the national level, and through the international system of tax havens.

Arab spring 2Finally, these changes are feeding into a deeper questioning of the nature of poverty itself. As the World Bank’s path-breaking and unsurpassed “Voices of the Poor” study in the 1990s showed, to be poor is as much about anxiety, vulnerability and shame as about income levels. And that anxiety has only been heightened by the turmoil of recent years.

In response, governments around the world increasingly acknowledge the limitations of income or GDP per capita as a measure of well-being, and are developing much more sophisticated metrics — aid agencies are rather lagging behind national governments in this regard.

This more subjective, people-based understanding of well and ill-being may be one explanation for a greatly increased focus on issues of power and agency in development, often linked to issues of the basic rights that are (or are not) enjoyed by poor people. The spread of “rights thinking” on areas such as gender, disability, ethnicity and sexuality appears to be a global phenomenon, bringing significant changes in national legislation and practice in many countries. The challenge for aid agencies is to ensure that their plans and methods, including the pressure to demonstrate “results” and “value for money” reflect this more human understanding of the nature of poverty and power. As the title of my book makes clear, we need to move “from poverty to power” in both our thinking and our practice.

Are we successfully completing an “age of development” or seeing the prize slip from humanity’s hands in an economic and climatic meltdown? It is hard to recall a period when developmental optimism and pessimism co-existed to such a high degree.

The stakes could not be higher. The coming decades will show whether poverty enters the history books, joining slavery and the fight for women’s suffrage, or whether an age of chaos and scarcity starts to reverse the wonderful progress of the last 70 years.

Duncan Green is the author of the book From Poverty to Power and Oxfam GB’s senior strategic adviser. He is launching his book and giving a public lecture at the University of Ottawa on Friday May 10. The event is sold-out, but a recording of the event will be made available soon on YouTube at