Is ‘Getting to Zero’ really feasible? The new Chronic Poverty Report

March 20, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

OK, I think we’ll draw a veil over the slightly disappointing migration wonkmassacre wonkfirstroundknockout wonkwar and get on with other stuff.

The latest Chronic Poverty Report (2014-15) was released last week, and I urge you to take a look. It’s a goldmine of analysis, case CPR coverstudies and graphics (too many for this post, I’ll have to tweet the extras).  The subtitle, ‘the road to zero extreme poverty’ is an attempt to influence the post2015 discussion, which is increasingly talking about ‘getting to zero’: eradicating extreme poverty for the first time in history, with 2030 a likely target date. For several years, the Chronic Poverty network has been thinking and writing about how to actually do that, so I hope the post2015 crowd listens.

Chronic poverty is different from general poverty: it describes the subset of poor people, (up to 500 million of them), who live permanently below the $1.25 poverty line, often for generations. They consist of a kaleidoscope of excluded groups – children, casual labourers, smallholder farmers, disabled people, indigenous minorities, downtrodden castes, widows, remote communities, the elderly, people with mental health problems, and often an intersecting combination of these.

The standard development recipe of growth + jobs may work for some of these, but not all. How do you help a disabled elderly woman escape from poverty? Microfinance or job creation aren’t going to do the trick: previous reports have stressed the importance of social protection and public services. This one adds more on ending discrimination and the social norms that justify it.

But the most striking message I took away from this report is actually not strictly about chronic poverty. Household-panel surveys in many countries now allow you to track households over a number of years. They show a strikingly high percentage of families that CP escape v fall backescape from poverty, only to fall back (see chart). The report argues that preventing people falling back in this way is a ‘low hanging fruit’ in poverty reduction, often ignored by policy makers and donors.

This picture of volatility (nicely illustrated with some very powerful life histories dotted around the report) means that in some countries, it may be more effective to concentrate on preventing escapees from falling back, while in others, helping them escape in the first place may be a better investment. The report suggests policies for different combinations of poverty and ‘impoverishment’ (risk of falling back) – see table.

The report doesn’t stop there, it also looks at how to maintain the escape from poverty of those that escape for good (after all, who would want to get to $1.26 a day and stay there?). Policies should pursue three separate but interdependent objectives – the zero poverty ‘tripod’’: tackling chronic poverty, stopping impoverishment (sliding back) and sustaining poverty escapes.

The report argues that ‘There are three policies that address all three legs of this tripod. All three are needed if the eradication of CP 3 stagesextreme poverty is to be sustained, and all three require massive global investment.  They are social assistance, education and pro-poorest economic growth. For other, more leg-specific policies, see graphic.

This is where, for me, the report loses its focus a bit, and the launch meeting in which I took part last week only confirmed these doubts. Sure, if you want to get to zero and stay there, you have to attack all 3 legs of the tripod with equal zeal. But in practice, governments and donors have only limited cash, and it seems to me entirely plausible that there are trade-offs between the three pillars of the tripod. So even if they are well intentioned, decision makers are bound to ask ‘what will give us the most poverty reduction for our buck?’ My reading of this report is that in some contexts, its answer would be that prevention (stopping people sliding back) provides a better social return on investment than cure (getting previously poor people above the poverty line). The report may have scored on own goal, inadvertently making the case for not targeting the chronically poor in some situations.

I think it was pushed in this direction both by the fascinating findings from the panel data, and the urge to hop aboard the post2015 bandwagon (you probably know what I think about that one). When I asked ODI’s Andrew Shepherd, the lead author of the report, he acknowledged ‘we strayed deliberately because of Getting to Zero’. But as far as I can see, they didn’t have to. It would have been fine to say ‘if you want to get to zero, there is a huge obstacle you have to overcome – chronic poverty. Here’s what you have to do for that elderly, disabled woman and the 500 million like her. The report could have developed some of its really interesting thinking on tackling the social norms that underpin exclusion and policy neglect, or its concept of ‘pro poorest economic growth’ (focussed on informal economy and migrant labourers).

Instead, including both the churners and the escapers has turned the report into a report about poverty and development in general. It’s actually a rather good one at that, but lots of other people cover that ground, and I regret the loss of focus on the chronically poor.

The launch debate highlighted another intriguing gap in the report. Following on from its definition of extreme poverty as less than $1.25 per head, it has a rather individualistic vision of the problem. It discusses collective action as a means to reduce poverty, but does not see association as an aspect of well being – it doesn’t seem that interested in issues of association (families, communities, social capital).

Don’t get me wrong, the report is a must read, breaking lots of new grounds, with a strong focus on government action (aid is a relatively minor presence), the need to understand the political economy of marginalization, and skilfully bridges the humanitarian and development siloes, while bringing in perspectives from economics and anthropology (when was the last time you saw witchcraft mentioned in one of these reports?).

I hope once the post2015 circus moves on, the Chronic Poverty team can get back to its core business. How about the next report being on the cultural norms and practices underpinning chronic poverty, building on whatever comes out of this year’s World Development Report (on Mind and Culture)?