Thursday, February 7, 2008

Is poverty a result or a cause?

Dear Colleagues

Maybe this is not an important question ... or maybe it is.

Some of the news about poverty alleviation is good ... many millions of people have moved from abject poverty to something better. Many of these people are in India and China, and other parts of South East Asia where global manufacturing and services have taken hold.

But the bad news is that far too many people are still in poverty with little hope, as things are presently going, of having much of a better future.

This population is in a perpetual Catch 22 ... because they are in poverty they are malnourished ... because they are malnourished, they have bad health ... because they have bad health, they cannot work well ... because they cannot work well, they are in poverty.

But worse ... the amazing improvements in productivity that have been achieved through science and technology has done little or nothing for the world's really poor. The exponential improvement in productivity has been matched by an exponential deterioration in the governance that might have been expected to mitigate the situation of the very poor. The global market economy has served the interest of the profit maximizing business, but has not had much of a favorable impact on the society at large, and the commons has been exploited more and more for private benefit. From the perspective of the poor, the global economic system is dysfunctional ... getting worse ... and offering very little hope.

What hope is there? Is there any hope?

Some of the leaders of the international relief and development sector (IRDS) opine that more resources flowing through the IRDS will give better results and will help reduce poverty. In my view, the evidence base for this is weak. In fact, it is possible to conclude that the value destruction associated with the activities of the IRDS will make matters worse and not better. But it is likely that more funds will flow into IRDS, and it is to be hoped that slowly there may be some progress made in using these funds more effectively.

The real hope is that there can be a significant change in the relief and development paradigm and that people centric and community centric development assistance can expand with far more respect for the potential of the poor. Dr. Muhammad Yunus has shown with the Grameen approach that poor people have potential ... and that it is opportunity that is missing. Do something about opportunity, and the people will progress. While the Grameen experience is significant ... it is not widely appreciated.

And to the extent that the Grameen experience is known ... no lessons seem to get learned. The whole of the IRDS remains focused on national level programs with planning and implementation driven by government processes, procedures and constrained by government capacity. Meanwhile the capacity of the people is largely ignored. The IRDS focus on sector programs ... or worse, sub sector or sub sub sector initiatives ... usually means that scarce local resources are badly utilized. In the end, rather little is sustainable ... and poverty just goes on and on and on.

And what is disturbing is that so much that is needing help from international sources could be fixed locally if only the people were a little less in poverty.

Peter Burgess

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