Random Highlights from the Manchester War on Poverty Conference

September 9, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Some random observations from the ‘Ten Years of War Against Poverty’ conference in Manchester, before I head off to Edinburgh for WAP_LOGO1-small-yellowtomorrow’s conference on ‘Making the Most of Scotland’s Aid (it’s that time of year…)

Ravi Kanbur (one of my heroes for his paper on why NGOs and the  big institutions disagree all the time) has an intriguing proposal for every country to run a ‘social protection assessment programme’ (SPAP). Analogous to the standard financial sector assessment programmes, these would run a stress test of existing social protection systems against possible crises (economic meltdowns, political crises, epidemics, civil conflict etc) to identify likely pressure points and put in place and improvement programme. This adds a dynamic shock-management aspect to the ‘steady state’ approaches of poverty reduction strategies and the like.
He also suggests a pre-qualified line of credit to finance social protection systems during shocks, what he calls a ‘deferred draw down Ravi Kanburyoption’ to be run by the World Bank for both low and middle income countries – governments can draw it down once certain triggers have been reached. A bit like the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, it means that money would be on tap immediately in a crisis, avoiding delays as governments and international bodies pass the hat round.

Standing back, this felt like another tentative step on the road to an emerging (and ad hoc) global welfare state. In today’s rich countries, shocks have always played a key role both in triggering the spread of welfare systems, (see recent post on Sweden) and in the introduction of taxation (see separate posts on that). Are we witnessing the global equivalent? A lot of big ad hoc processes, like the rise of import substitution, are only understood, and rationalised in retrospect, so the fact that we don’t realize what is happening is not unusual.

Other notes: The conference so far has seemed unable to grapple with issues of politics and power. Every time someone raises these issues (for example the seasoned Kenyan lobbyist asking why everyone was assuming that governments are motivated entirely by poverty reduction, and merely lack the evidence from disinterested academics, when we all know that is nonsense), the discussion veers back rapidly to the comfort zone of technical themes of measurement and best practice economic and social policy. There is still a long way to go in getting the development scene to take political economy seriously.

There may be a ‘branding’ problem with the term ‘chronic poverty’. One well connected Bangladeshi academic had to start calling it ‘extreme poverty’ before policy makers would take any notice – he thinks ‘chronic’ sounds too permanent, intractable and expensive to deal with.

India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme seems to be ousting Brazil’s Bolsa Familia as PhD students’ social programme of choice, judging by the proliferation of papers on its origins, structure and impact.

A rhetorical question from Andy Sumner in a panel on the MDGs that lingers in the mind. ‘Whose ethical responsibility are poor people in countries where the elites have the capacity to help them?’ As inequality within countries continues to grow, that’s going to be one we keep coming back to, I think.

Oh and the novel sight of Joe Stiglitz sitting quietly in the audience listening to other people’s presentations (even mine, on – you guessed it – the global economic crisis). Not often that Nobel laureates stick around after their plenary speeches. Impressive.