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.

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