Last post from Manchester: social protection and how do we get to grips with politics and power?

September 10, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

More thoughts (increasingly incoherent as workshop fatigue sets in) from the Manchester conference. What are the big changes in WAP_LOGO1-small-yellowthinking from ten years of research on chronic poverty in dozens of countries?

First, social protection, which has mushroomed from fringe issue to magic bullet with extraordinary speed. If the SP advocates really have won the argument on this, the next stage will involve a lot more experimentation and evidence. What kinds of SP? Who for? How much does it cost? Who benefits? Do shocks and crises provide the best conditions for its introduction? What sort of political contexts help/hinder? Sub-categories of SP and SP research will develop further: SP and gender/children/older people; urban v rural; SP and climate change; SP for migrants; SP and disability. How can SP be scaled up from local to national to global? When is SP counterproductive, eg feeding clientilism or welfare dependence, or exacerbating gender disparities? Lots of this is already being studied, but plenty still to do.

Moser-family-and-friends-1978-150x150Second, poverty dynamics: look under the bonnet of poverty and there is a heaving, churning universe as people enter/emerge from poverty due to shocks, luck, hard work or their phase of life. Caroline Moser touched on this when she discussed her great book (reviewed here) on 30 years of research in a shanty town in Ecuador. During that time, she changed from seeing her neighbours in terms of poverty to thinking in terms of ‘asset accumulation’. The first asset people try and acquire on arriving in a city is housing. Once migrants have a house, they move on to accumulating other assets – financial, physical, human and social capital. Once the basics are achieved, the second generation develops different needs and expectations – what matters are secure jobs (and alienation from the lack of them), social cohesion, crime and distrust. Aid donors and local authorities prefer to focus on more tangible and do-able first generation issues – roads, street lights, playgrounds and health and education. So do local politicians, because new slums mean new votes, whereas in the established communities, party loyalties are more fixed. So all the attention is on the new shanty towns on the rim of the city, with nothing left for the rotting tenements or crumbling second generation settlements further in.

Finally, I asked a panel of chronic poverty gurus how we get onto the subject of politics and power, and actually stay there (see yesterday’s moan). What we need is a Chronic Politics Research Consortium, moving on from vague words like “governance” and “political will”, which have no explanatory power and are better seen as words to describe our areas of ignorance. Just as CPRC has dug into ‘poverty’ and ‘poverty reduction’, the CPRC 2.0 would get beneath the bonnet and explore the political roots of chronic poverty’s reduction or persistence. Here are their answers to where a CPRC 2.0 might start.

Andrew Shepherd: First we need to understand the interaction between research and politicians, (i.e. not just with policy makers), including via public opinion. We need to build strong research capacity in developing countries, so that national researchers can become more influential actors. As for the content of the research agenda, political parties and movements (and accountability mechanisms) often matter more than formal policy design process, producing the ‘underlying politics where norms and moral issues are being shaped’.

Myles Wickstead acknowledged the difficulties of aid donors funding work on parliamentary processes, and focussed on how little we understand elites. In many countries, local elites are largely unaware of the realities of their own poor people. What might trigger a revolution in attitudes?

Caroline Moser decided to go on the offensive (that’s definitely the last time I’m nice about one of her books): part of the problem is convergence. Why are researchers supposed to be advocates, and vice versa. Why did Oxfam do the global economic crisis research, rather than a university? Interesting question. Short answer is because UK universities are too slow and expensive, while we did work with universities in some of the case study countries. And we do know our limits – the research niche we aim for is generally rigorous qualitative work that builds on our programme experience. No point in us trying to compete on the big data gathering exercises. Longer answer is is watch this space – Caroline and I then had lunch to discuss how we might work together in future – that’s the real  benefit of conferences like this.