Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pro-Poor Politics (Unit 6)

Pro-poor politics. Implementing policy to help the poor. At first glance it seems like a fairly innocuous phrase. There are poor people in the world and there are policies that are intended to help them - simple enough, right? Maybe not...

This last fortnight has had us examining pro-poor politics, and specifically this week we've looked at the drivers behind those policies. What that has shown is that a seemingly simple subject can have many nuances and raise many questions.


In the last 30 years there has been a push for greater participation by those targeted for aid - for them to be more involved in the development of those policies. The idea is that the more input people have into the process, the better the policies will be - they will address the real needs rather than the perceived needs of people.

However, in recent years there has been a backlash against these policies. Participation has been seen as a way of legitimising aid efforts, with development agencies paying lip service to it, thereby reinforcing a way of working with Western organisations dictating to developing countries.

I can see how this could happen very easily. When new ways of working are being developed they are followed properly, but as they become institutionalised they can become steps that are followed unthinkingly. When this happens you begin to lose the benefits of the original idea.

We read two pieces on participation for this unit, one for, one against. I found it easy to believe in the anti-participation arguments because I feel it is a common issue, not just in development circles, but across all industries. There were some arguments that particularly hit home for me from Participation: The New Tyranny? by Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari:

  • participants shaping their answers based on what they felt the agency could deliver
  • saying that informal institutions were equally important, whilst focussing on formal institutions
  • that grassroots organisations can simply become vehicles for development agencies to gain legitimacy

These obviously create a cynical view of the world to be taking and that's quite depressing - people, myself included, want to believe that the people involved in development are all "superior" people, committing themselves to a life of improving the world. The realisation that they are fallible just like everyone else is sobering (although both obvious and a bit of a relief!).

Maradona - a gifted player who struggled as a coach
The other side of the story, presented by Hickey and Mohan in "Participation as Transformation" is that participation is a valid approach, but only if properly implemented. They argue it has become a technical approach, rather than a political one. This is a view that I can definitely subscribe to. I feel that, not just in development, it can be difficult to codify a process and when you try to distil it down to steps that can be articulated for others to follow, you can lose the essence of the process. An analogy I've heard before is when brilliant footballers (or other sports stars) become coaches / managers - they struggle because they can't articulate what / why they do something that just comes naturally to them!

The other piece of their work that really rang true for me was the assumption that "local" somehow equates to "simple". Politics arises in all groups, however small. Assuming that a village or other small community will be simple to define and have non-complex relationships is, at best, optimistic and at worst, condescending. Not spending the time to understand all of the relationships in an area and using these as a lens from which to view their inputs would be a massive mistake.

In that way I feel both sides of the argument are valid - participation still has a place in developing pro poor policies, but only if the people driving the agenda are willing to actually commit to the process. I think there is a really important lesson here - when following a particular methodology you need to ensure that you are committing to it and understand the reasons for what you're doing. 

Drivers of pro poor politics

Understanding the drivers behind pro-poor politics is am important step in learning how to address gaps in policy. One of the most interesting nuggets of information in this module for me was looking at the history behind philanthropy. The idea that Victorian England started to invest in the poor due to military commitments and a wish to avoid the working class losing dignity was a fascinating idea for me.

I thought this was a really good way of demonstrating two principles in the ways that elites view poverty - the idea of a positive or negative threat to elites' power. The lack of sufficient able-bodied men for the military was a negative threat to the elites, forcing them to take action to lift the living conditions of the lower classes. The idea of lower-class working poor losing respectability was framing the problem in a positive way for the elites - they saw the poor as deserving of attention.

I found this section of the module hugely intriguing. Firstly, I had never through of development as anything other than altruistic - the idea that some development is performed because it actually happens to strengthen the position of the elites was a new concept to me. Moore and Hossain believe there is a historical trend away from the negative drivers (through the rise of democracy), but there are obvious parallels with modern-day Africa here. In fact, this for me ties in well with Moore's previous work on Unearned State Income - I would imagine there is a high correlation between states with high levels of unearned income and development policies that are responding to negative threats - i.e. to avoid civil unrest, etc.

I picked some further reading on this area by John Toye - Nationalising the Anti-Poverty Agenda. He goes even further than Moore, saying that basically the elites only implement true anti-poverty policy when:
1. They cannot insulate themselves from the poor
2. The poor can influence them via crime, epidemic or insurrection
3. They can do something to impact that poverty

Toye also extends on the views on participatory development, by pointing out that often the assessments of a country's poverty situation is done by one of the large multi-national organisations. This means that they have a tendency to see similar problems as identical and be too quick to ascribe particular issues to a country without fully understanding the state on the ground.

One question I noted as I was reading this article was whether the philanthrocapitalists pre-occuptation with health and disease may have something to do with this self-preservation theory - poverty in itself is unlikely to impact them directly, but a world-wide epidemic? That would be something even money couldn't avoid.

Education is the answer

The article by Moore and Hussain was also the first to introduce the theory around how framing development in educational language makes it more appealing to elites. As we would see in later articles, there is an implicit assumption from many elites that the poor are lazy and work-shy, that if they wanted to, they could work their way out of poverty. This leads to the belief that often it is lack of education that is the problem and therefore support is more likely to be given to policies that promote education as the answer.

This is an argument I have a hard time with. Not that elites are more inclined to support these programmes, but the theory under-pinning it. In the UK we have countless articles from newspapers all the time about benefits cheats and the lazy jobless - yet, we have a education system that provides free schooling to all children through to the age of 18. If this was purely an education issue, Britain should not be facing these issues. [Please note, I'm sceptical of the actual level of benefits cheats, but that's another argument!]

What is more likely, for my mind, is that people do not like to believe that their privileged position is due to birth-right rather than hard work. The old saying that "you need money to make money" probably isn't far from the truth and, as this article from the Economist shows - it is getting harder to move across social classes. What this article shows though is that people still believe in the idea that hard work will enable them to do this. With that in mind, it is easy to understand why elites are so happy to invest in education - they see the equation as simply:

Knowledge + Effort = Success

They then recognise that without knowledge the poor cannot succeed and therefore the answer is to invest in education. The implicit statement is "I could have done it if I'd needed to", even though they almost certainly didn't actually have to!

This attitude is seen in stark relief in the article by Chipiliro Kalebe-Nyamongo from our own University of Birmingham(!), who looked at the attitudes of elites in Malawi towards the poor. Although they were keen to explicitly state they saw no distinction between the "deserving and undeserving" poor when asked directly, much of their answers gave a different view - they implicitly believe that the poor are lazy and not inclined to work their way out of poverty.

Interestingly, this isn't solely a developing world issue. As a recent survey in the UK found, the British public believe that benefit fraud is a far bigger issue than it actually is. I wonder whether there is an education (ironic!) piece that can be done here to help the elites to understand the real issues facing the poor so that the right help can be provided and policy is enacted with the correct reasoning behind it.

Part of this article also talked about the impact of religion in Malawi and how this was almost making poverty something to aspire to. The well known quote of Mark 10:25 about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to make it into heaven and other similar teachings are apparently making poverty a holy position. Talking to a friend who is a professor in War Crimes at Kings College London, he felt that the opposite is true in Western Africa, with evangelical preachers promoting wealth in the name of God. In both cases it is clear that the role of religion in the region can have massive repercussions on the opinions of the poor.

Framing the question

The other issue with framing the discussion in terms of some poor being lazy and not willing to escape poverty is that it splits the poor into those "deserving" of aid vs. those who aren't. If this is the case, who is going to help those who are left behind? I find this particularly disconcerting. Any approach to development that implies some people are not worthy (or capable) of being helped seems to me to be implicitly wrong. We need to find approaches that truly understand the challenges being faced by these populations and how we can help them to overcome those issues to allow them to take their rightful place in society.

The bottom line - if the elites can only understand the issues if they are framed in a way that their neo-liberal belief systems can comprehend, maybe they are the ones that need the education, not the poor.

This point is also made by Toye - if we ask the question of poverty with economics in mind (which he argues we do), then we will always find an economic answer to the problem. If poverty's underlying causes are actually political, we will always be addressing the symptoms, not the causes. This is also true (and I've been guilty of it in this post) of seeing "the poor" as one, homogeneous group, which they patently are not. There are infinite different ways in which a person can find themselves being classed as poor from an economic standpoint. Some of those will be similar, but they are certainly not all the same. Anti-poverty policy needs to take this into account.

Not only are there different reasons for being poor, but there are different levels of poverty. Most of the writers we have studied have made this point, but it takes Amartya Sen to point out that by focussing on quantity of population, we often direct policy at those just below the poverty line, rather than those most in need of help. Toye argues for the opposite - pointing out that there needs to be triage and divert scarce resources where it is most beneficial. For my part, I haven't seen any evidence that policy directed at the poorest communities is any less efficient and therefore that would seem the best use of those funds. If it *is* less efficient, that simply calls into question the approach to the problem, not the objective.

Piggy in the middle

We have looked at some of the ways the poor themselves can influence policy and we have seen how the behaviours of the elites impact on the conversation too. There is one final group - the middle-class. They are non-poor and non-elites. They often are a substantial payer of taxes to the state, active in political conversations (formal and non-formal) and more inclined to organise themselves in order to achieve like-minded goals. While this group can certainly be a positive force for pro-poor politics - campaigning on their behalf, altruistic giving, etc. They can also have views at odds with the lower classes. 

The example we were given was an article on Indian middle-classes by Poulomi Chakrabarti. She describes how the formalisation of of a Delhi government programme for groups called Bhagidari to give a voice to the poor resulted in greater mobilisation from the middle classes. These two groups then, rather than working together, were at odds on a number of issues.

This poses some difficult decisions for governments. In terms of participation in the political process, the middle class are often greater contributors to the state - they pay taxes, they vote, they are often the people working in the government departments and civil services. It is difficult for politicians to ignore their demands without facing a backlash.

However, these groups obviously have self-interests and those may sometimes be at odds with what would be deemed pro-poor policies. In the examples given, there were protests at energy price hikes (deemed to be due to the poor "siphoning" illegal energy, and forming a "vote-bank" to keep the current politicians in charge in exchange for not being punished for these actions) and on illegal land capture - i.e. the use of public land for the businesses and houses of the poor. 

The concern here is not that different groups have different interests - that will always happen. It is that different groups have different levels of access to the political process. One of the fascinating things for me to read in this article was the way that the government targeted specific areas where they would not have to deal with land rights - i.e. by avoiding trying to implement policy there, they could avoid having to legitimise the claims of the poor to the land they were on. Points like this bring the challenges that the poor have to face in order to simply be considered on a level ground with the non-poor into focus.

Of course, one of the ways to resolve these issues is by increasing participation for the poor - which was where we started for this unit! Finding ways for the poor to be appropriately represented in policy discussions seems like the highest priority for development strategy to me.


I think my biggest takeaway from this unit has been the realisation that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. It is imperative to try to understand as much as possible about a political landscape before trying to implement pro-poor policy, as communities (large and small) are always more complex than first impressions may appear.

Different groups will have different motivations for implementing pro-poor policy and understanding their underlying beliefs about the poor will help to position policy in ways that make it easier for them to understand and support such policy.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

International Influences on Development

Catalytic Philanthropy

It's a fairly safe bet that you've heard of one of these people:
Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are numbers 1 and 3 on the world's richest person list. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, trails in at a measly 22nd. But it's not just their wealth that unites them - each of them has also committed to giving away a significant amount of their fortunes during their lifetimes to development programmes.

The Giving Pledge

In 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett announced the Giving Pledge, which called on the top wealthiest people in the world to donate half of their fortunes to philanthropy. Since then over 100 of the world's richest people have signed up to pledge at least 50% of their wealth over their lifetime or in their wills. The Gates' have pledged 95%. Warren Buffett has pledged 99%. These are staggering amounts of money and they cannot fail to have an impact on the lives of many, many people in dire need of that support.

The question is: are there any problems with this obviously well-intentioned giving?

There is an interesting site called Eye on the Giving Pledge, which tracks those people who have signed up to the pledge. A quick scan of the demographics of those involved is extremely revealing. 105 of the current 122 pledgers are based in the USA. 78 of them are aged 65 or over. The vast majority are male.

Demographics of the Giving Pledgers
The fact that it's focussed on the USA is actually intentional. The Pledge was only "opened up" to international benefactors in the last year (Gates recently tried to put pressure on the wealthy Chinese to sign up). But is it a problem? Well it could be.....that's not exactly a demographically mixed group! Are they able to see past their institutional biases to be able to ensure that their fortunes are given to the "right" causes. The concern here is that ultimately, there are no safeguards on how this money is used and no way to ensure that it is used to its maximum potential.

For example, it would be perfectly acceptable for one of the pledgers to donate all of their fortune to providing computers for universities in cities across Africa, giving the students there access to state of the art facilities. There is little doubt that this would benefit a large number of people and might have significant long-term benefits for the economies of these countries by stimulating technological advancement and investment. However, it would be a project that benefits those already completing education, a tiny subset of the population, alienating those who cannot afford education, girls in particular, who statistically are less likely to complete their education and those in rural areas who do not have access to these institutions.

I have chosen an extreme (and completely hypothetical) example, but the point is still valid. Philanthropists, by their very nature, choose where they want their money to be spent. Their choices may be based on good reasons, personal preferences or other factors, but this may have unforeseen consequences. Or worse - there could be very political, religious or other extremist views that they can promote. The point is - there is no control of what or how they donate their money. They are not held to account and there is nothing to ensure they do the "right" thing.

Stand and Deliver

Even if you exclude motivations behind the choice of area to donate to, the structure of projects run by philanthrocapitalists can also be sub-optimal. Donors naturally have a desire to witness the impact of their giving. In combination with the fact that the majority of these donors are in the later years of their lives, there can be a tendency to focus on short-term projects that show quicker results. Infrastructure projects are frequently prioritised over improving governance and participation.

Another interesting trend is that a large number of the pledgers are self-made and frequently (like Gates and Zuckerberg) from a technology back-ground. Their natural inclination is to see development as a technology problem where the right thinking simply hasn't been applied yet. The "technology plus science plus the market brings the right results" approach is one that is common among these groups. These projects are often extremely delivery focussed. This means that they can be addressing the symptom of the issue, rather than the fundamental underlying problem. The general feeling is that philanthropy is now beginning to learn these lessons, but the lack of institutional memory means that each institution ends up re-learning them.

I think that like many people I had a natural inclination to assume that projects run by these institutions are automatically better than those run by governments and NGOs. There's a kind of implied wastage when we think about government programmes and that privatisation is always better. It's a strange position to be in, coming from the UK where the privatisation of the telecomms, rail and energy markets seems to be consistently criticised by everyone you talk to!

In all seriousness though, it was good to reassess my beliefs in this area and I can understand the concerns that 100 people, with no accountability, can be responsible for such a large proportion of the aid delivered to some of the most needy people. For one thing, that aid becomes extremely dependent on altruistic individuals. Gates won't be around forever and neither will his foundation - who will pick up the baton then?

Room for everyone?

Gates himself is extremely eloquent on this topic. He explains about how he sees a potential hole in the development ecosystem that only philanthropists can fill - they are unencumbered by politics and can more easily attempt new approaches and methods. I have a lot of sympathy with this position, but my concern is that there are no market forces at work here to ensure that the right steps are being taken. Without the ability to benchmark projects and properly gauge their effectiveness, it is almost impossible to prove that one project is better than another and therefore comparing "traditional" aid best practice to philanthrocapitalism is impossible - neither side can "prove" their argument and therefore it is difficult to hold these projects to account.

The flip side to this is that the "best practice" of international development has changed a lot over the years - and there is still no consensus that we've reached the end of the development journey. Those lessons have been hard learned and there is nothing to say that philanthrocapitalism won't uncover the new best practice. In fact, I would argue that experimentation and new ideas can only help the sector overall. These foundations are in the best position to trial these new methods and then can pass their learnings down to the their colleagues in the traditional development agencies.

One of my big passions is openness - I feel that the more open a process is to examination, the better for all parties involved. One of the ways that the philanthropic institutions can answer some of their critics is to open their internal workings up to examination. Much like the current All Trials  campaign, all development work should be opened up to inspection. Only by understanding exactly what has been tried, by whom and where can we hope to learn more about the most effective approaches to development. Given the business (and often technology) background of many of these philanthropists I would hope that this is a principle that they would be open to - and could provide leadership to the rest of the development community on.

United we stand?

It is clear to me that a joined up approach to development is required. Regardless of whether programmes are funded by bilateral, multi-lateral or private transfers, having multiple different agencies working in isolation will result in inefficiencies and overlap. There are already steps to address this (warning: pdf) in multi-lateral and bi-lateral aid, but we need to go further. Aid agencies need to bring philanthropy organisations to the discussions about how to address this and ensure that wherever possible, development aid is delivered in a co-ordinated and planned way. Only by engaging the foundations in this way can they also influence their approaches to ensure that the best practices that the traditional organisations have learned over the years are not re-learnt by philanthrocapitalist institutions.

This discussion is a particularly interesting area of debate for me, as shortly I will be travelling to Rwanda to visit a friend who is working with the Clinton Global Initiative and Hunter Foundation. I don't currently have many details of the work that she is doing in Kigali, but I look forward to hearing about how some of the concerns raised in this blog are mitigated against (if at all) and whether the fears of the development industry are well-founded. I hope to be able to provide a "part 2" to this blog post once I get back from Rwanda. 

This discussion also has long-term implications for myself. Coming from a consultancy background I have to confess that the technology + professionalism approach was one that I subscribed to previously and where I felt that my skills may be best suited in the long-term. I.e. I expected that I would be more likely to find employment in organisations that took a more delivery focussed approach to projects, seeing as that was my background. Now I will have to assess whether that is the right approach for me - if I believe these organisations are "doing development wrong", can I attempt to change them from the inside, or do I look for other routes into the industry?