Global wealth, global poverty. Part two.

If poverty reduction is the answer, it’s the wrong question

So, who are the global poor and how can we get them out of poverty?

These are the wrong questions. It is a testament to the deep ideology of our time that they seem like the most virtuous and innocent questions you could imagine. They are not. Following on from Part One, I want to unpack these questions and identify why they are problematic before suggesting different and more political questions.

Who are the global poor? The most common response to this question is an accounting exercise. For fifty years economists have been making calculations about national income and ranking countries accordingly: rich countries down to poor countries. The World Bank publishes a yearly World Development Report full of tables ranking countries by various economic and social measures in ways that generate within the reader’s mind an image of the world as a hierarchy of nations defined by wealth and poverty. Poor countries become defined precisely as the bounded spaces within which the global poor live. Rich countries become models for poor countries – targets to be attained. Rich countries help poor countries. This (misleading) zoning of the poor creates a distance and hierarchy.

And, we don’t actually learn much about poverty if we imagine a kind of massive aggregate of people on a certain income per year defined as poor. This kind of categorisation has been going on for a depressingly long time, recently buoyed along by economists’ talk of the ‘bottom billion’. ‘The poor are always with us’, a great swathe of humanity defined as waiting for some form of intervention to allow them to improve their lives.

Stalin apparently commented that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic. Once we define ‘the poor’ in their millions, it is impossible to value their lives. And, the global poor are constructed as a statistic. Outside of the accounting exercise, the actual people who are extremely poor share nothing as a collectivity apart from their aggregation based on income estimates. This cheapens them, sometimes quite literally. Consider the frequent charitable appeals that ask you to sponsor a child or appeal to you to make a donation because £5 per month will keep a person alive.

Now, the global development enterprise is a very big project, involving lots of different agencies with their own ideas and approaches. To go through all of these and recognise their diversity throughout this blog would make it five times longer and far less easy to read. I want to suggest that when we talk about ‘global development’ or the ‘development sector’, we can broadly agree that we are talking about development aid, projects targeted at poor people, and policy advice that aims to reduce poverty. We are also thinking about non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam and Save the Children, international agencies like the World Bank, and donor governments that have official aid budgets that they disburse to countries with large numbers of poor people. If one defines this collection of approaches and agencies as the ‘development industry’, then this is an industry that both generates perspectives about the global poor similar to that I have caricatured above, and it is an industry that claims its aim is to substantially reduce global poverty.

Taking ‘poverty’ seriously

But, I think, we need to do better. Consider one of the standard charitable phrases in the UK from the 1960s onwards is ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ You may think that sounds rather wise… except that ‘the man’ is portrayed as simply waiting for someone else to decide which is best, the fish or the fishing lesson. Let us instead imagine taking the rather obvious step of asking if the man is already a fisherman. And if he is, why not see what skills he has? Why not ask him about his livelihood and his supposed lack of fish? We might even ask if he’s a woman while we’re at it! And, we might also ask her if she wants to fish for the rest of her life, as the quotation implies, or whether she has other ambitions.

One response to my appeal to treat people who are poor as people rather than poor is to say something like ‘We have to use these generalisations or we can’t come up with effective development policies, aid packages, and charitable appeals. We need some shorthand because we can’t ask everyone about their lives and then tailor our anti-poverty actions to each of them.’ To which I reply, probably slightly irritatingly: ‘Exactly.’

Because this sort of response (and I have had comments from NGO workers similar to this, bundled together with a hostility to ‘critical’ academic research) reveals very lucidly that ‘the poor’ – or one of a range of analogous more specific categorisations such as ‘the malnourished’, orphans, or perhaps simply ‘farmers’ – is a construction to serve the purposes of development intervention. And, the short history development intervention is by no means an entirely happy one.

The notion that crude categorisations are the price to pay for efficient anti-poverty action comes apart when one realises that a great deal of the projects and programmes supported by development agencies from countries high up in the global hierarchy have not worked very well. For quite a while – up until the late 1980s – there was actually very little assessment of the extent to which development was in any clear way successful. This was largely because it was either seen as ‘charitable’ and therefore intrinsically good or because it was part of government programmes subjected to their own political agendas and bureaucracies. When ‘development’ started to be assessed, it became clear that there were a lot of problems with a lot of projects and that it was actually quite difficult to make claims that development was working.

This means that the simplification of defining a ‘global poor’ has not been an expedient way to get development right. On the contrary, one might suppose that categorising ‘the poor’ is an admission of defeat, a manifestation of the fact that ‘we’ are not equipped to make a great difference through aid, projects, and policy advice in situations that we poorly understand and are too eager to gloss over. In other words, what you do and how you define the target of your actions are all part of the same political practice.

The aid industry does not have the knowledge, resources, or motivation to bring an end to global poverty. Despite the best of intentions and lots of examples of specific projects that have had good effects on some people’s lives, there is no clear and proven development approach that simply needs the right political backing and resourcing to make a big dent in the numbers of extremely poor people. The intellectual history of international development is, in a nutshell, the endless shifting between one approach, strategy, and ideology and another – each presented as if it was the final one that will allow poverty to be addressed once and for all.

A refocusing

I would like to suggest two shifts in perspective in the way we understand poverty and also I want to argue that this shift undermines the popular assumption that we can solve the problem of global poverty through aid, projects and policy advice.

Firstly, poverty is relational. That is, poverty is not simply a static condition of not having enough income. It is a result of heavy exploitation, being kept in disadvantaged relations with wealthier and more powerful people, being denied the capacity to improve one’s life, kept on the margins. The idea of a subsistence farmer, isolated and poor is a complete myth. All small-scale farmers trade, work for wage incomes, struggle to defend or acquire resources… Their poverty is an outcome of their relations with traders, government agencies, employers, other farmers and so on. And, then there are the growing numbers of poor in city slums, scraping together livelihoods from insecure employment, trade, and crime – as modern, globalised, and connected as anyone else and increasingly living in what people commonly called ‘the developed world’.

Secondly, poverty is ‘thick’. This means that poverty is never simply a lack of money: it is experienced as a social identity. Poverty is about endless exhausting work, uncertainty about how long the basic requirements of life might last, a feeling of powerlessness and marginality, a struggle against the powerful or an appeal to them for assistance, a vulnerability to life’s unexpected disasters. Additionally, a lack of financial riches does not mean a lack of cultural richness. In people’s lives, poverty is intertwined with intimate aspects of identity: gender, ethnicity, age, religion, region, family history, relations to other peoples… Poor people understand their situation and have their own narratives about it.

If we think about poverty as a social condition: diverse, and defined by real experiences then it is likely that we feel far less certain about who ‘the poor’ are as a single category and we feel less secure in thinking that there is a single solution to global poverty. I think that this is a good thing. It means that we need to consider global poverty not simply as a question of what we should do to help ‘the bottom billion’ but rather as a set of questions, one of which is: who are ‘we’ and on what grounds to do we assume that we can reduce global poverty in any significant measure?

For some, this might still seem rather frustrating and some might want to thump their fists on a table and say ‘Enough of this! We need to do something NOW! People are dying!’. This kind of response only holds currency when there is a sudden humanitarian emergency – a famine or a mass displacement as a result of civil war. But, development is usually defined as something more medium-term, based in five-year periods, aiming at changing livelihoods not saving lives. So, actually, development is inescapably about the kinds of questions I am posing.

Here are some coordinates that allow us to talk about global poverty without ‘the global poor’ and a resort to the seductive talk of what ‘we’ can do for ‘them’.

The major force creating improvements in material wealth is capitalist development. The global figures on poverty and inequality and the evidence of improvements in these areas is not a story about more and better aid; it is a story about industrialisation and transformation in medium and large economies such as China and India. So, a question we need to ask – in my view the question – is: what kinds of strategies, policies, institutions, and ideas enhance the prospects for sustained capitalist development in ways that produce expanded benefits for the poorest people?

This leads to the second coordinate: more attention paid to the nature of poverty as a dynamic and interactive condition. In specific situations, poverty is unique to each person: a lifestory. But, we do have a range of mid-level ways to understand poverty which get us into the meat of the challenging questions about why people are poor. For example (and drawing in a fairly undisciplined way on my own reading and research): adverse changes in markets over which the people have very little influence; low wages and uncertain employment conditions; a very slender resource base that stops people from investing in improved production; enduring state interventions that disrupt people’s livelihood or even dispossess them of their resources; being on the sharp end of investments that throw people off their land or pollute their farming and living environment; being kept in usury by lenders and merchants; having the fruits of one’s labour taken by force or the threat of it. Being bombed.

Once again, you might feel that we are veering between a positive desire to take poverty conditions more seriously, and a worrying effect of making the world too complicated to think politically about ways of addressing poverty. But, I would stubbornly reply that this is the necessary path because it stops us telling ourselves satisfying (and actually not very political) stories about development and global poverty, and because it in fact produces more richly political issues and questions.

One fundamental way in which one can see this is by making a simple switch in perspective that in fact issues directly out of the kinds of representations I have offered above. Poverty is not an income and aid issue; it is a justice issue. As the more Left-leaning development NGOs has insisted: poverty is political in the sense that it is a result of unjust and exploitative relations on a range of scales. If injustice is not a good enough start for political passions then: what is?

And, once we move into the politics of global justice, a range of political activisms and discourses come into view – ones not associated centrally with development campaigning but rather with global social justice campaigning. Which, dear reader, brings me to the segueway to our third blog.

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