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December 9, 2013

Ending poverty is about the politics of power: guest piece for the OECD

December 9, 2013
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This guest rant of mine appeared in the OECD’s Development Cooperation Report 2013, published last week. The report, subtitled ‘Ending Povertydacn nov 2013 dcr‘, is worth a skim – it’s a good survey of current debates on poverty and aid, with contributions from piles of wonks, followed by a donor-by-donor aid overview.

A necessary starting point in any discussion of ending poverty is “What do we mean by poverty?” The answer to that question has proved surprisingly fluid in recent years, as crude income definitions of poverty have come under intellectual challenge from a number of quarters (a recurring theme in this Development Co-operation Report).

As long ago as the 1990s, the World Bank’s ground-breaking Voices of the Poor study uncovered a narrative of anxiety, fear and shame – being poor is worrying about what happens if the rickshaw-driving breadwinner has an accident, if a child gets sick and the hospital charges exorbitant fees, if a daughter gets married, or if someone dies and requires an expensive funeral.

Over the past five years, multiple shocks – financial, food prices, climatic and others – have added to this narrative, driving home the importance of volatility as a source of vulnerability in the lives of poor people. More recently, national governments around the world – supported by the OECD and others – have invested seriously in devising new ways to measure well-being and the multiple aspects of poverty beyond income.

This more sophisticated understanding of the nature of poverty means, alas, that “getting to zero” is a chimera because multidimensional poverty is much broader and more entrenched than mere income poverty. Nevertheless, it takes the development debate in important and positive directions in terms of policy (witness the increased emphasis on smoothing mechanisms such as social protection to combat volatility and vulnerability).

Perhaps more importantly, it encourages us to engage with the essentially political nature of poverty, i.e. seeing poverty in terms of power. The Oxfam book From Poverty to Power explains the underlying process of development as the renegotiation and redistribution of power. Power resembles an invisible force field that both links and influences individuals and social groups. The task of those wishing to promote development is first to make such power visible – by understanding how it operates in each situation – and then to understand how power shifts and can be influenced by aid agencies, political movements or civil society organisations.

Oxfam’s experience suggests that power is renegotiated through a combination of both steady and occasionally abrupt change. Steady change grows out of the daily grind of governance and politics and the wonderfully intense public conversation between citizens’ organisations, faith groups, the private sector, the media, academics and policy makers. It propels evolutionary change: the slow but inexorable transformation of attitudes, such as towards the role of women.

There are also moments of rapid shifts in power, driven by wars, economic crises, failures and scandals. Such shocks often provide crucial windows of opportunity in which decision makers suddenly become open to new ideas and answers. For example, it may well take major climate shocks in high greenhouse gas-emitting countries and a consequent political (and perhaps literal) meltdown to open doors and minds to the kinds of drastic solutions needed to avert catastrophic climate change.

suffragettesSeeing development in terms of a shift from poverty to power induces a welcome sense of optimism. Despite periodic crackdowns by frightened elites, power has indeed been redistributed broadly over the course of the past century: in 1914, only New Zealand, Australia, Finland and Norway allowed women equal voting rights to men; by 1979, a woman’s right to vote had become a universal right under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The assertion of power by people living in poverty is both an end in itself – a crucial kind of freedom – and a means for building social institutions (the state, the market, the community, and the family) that respect people’s rights and meet their needs through laws, rules, policies and day-to-day practices. When individuals join together to challenge discrimination against specific groups – for example, against women, indigenous communities or disabled people – they can transform the institutions that oppress them into ones that serve them.

In contrast to portraying poor people as passive “victims” (of disasters, or poverty, or famine) or as “beneficiaries” (of aid, or social services), this development vision places poor people’s own actions centre stage. In the words of Bangladeshi academic Naila Kabeer, “From a state of powerlessness that manifests itself in a feeling of ‘I cannot’, activism contains an element of collective self-confidence that results in a feeling of ‘We can’.”

The shift from poverty to power is often an extremely local process (even within households, in the case of violence against women), and this raisespoverty-gap important challenges for us as outsiders seeking to promote development in poor countries. It means learning to negotiate the fine line between effectiveness and interference. It also means accepting a more humble role in the drama of development: the primary actors are national and the impacts of outside interventions, for good or ill, are probably less extensive than many of us thought.

Getting anywhere near to ending poverty is an inherently political process. The sooner we do-gooders embrace such an understanding, the more likely we are to provide the sort of support that will make a lasting difference.


  1. Great to point out this report! Just, on a detail…. “by 1979, a woman’s right to vote had become a universal right under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women”. CEDAW did not really make women’s right to vote universal in 1979, as it is an international treaty which is binding only on those States that ratify it. In the 80’s, it was only ratified by a few countries, and is still not ratified by a number of States (Saudi Arabia…). On the other hand, the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights arguably provided for an equal right between men and women (combination or articles 2 and 21). And as it name suggests, it has a universal scope, and receives de facto a pretty universal support as it’s connected to the UN Charter. It is, however, not legally binding…
    In any case, women’s right to vote has yet to become truly universal!

  2. Thanks for this post Duncan – such a strong and coherent argument. I wonder how we can spread the word so that it is heard not only by NGOs who are already embracing these more academic understanding’s of our role (and are perhaps therefore signed up to your blog), but also by the ‘do-gooders’ who continue to see poor people as passive recipients of aid. Can a perhaps more accessible version be put together?

    To add to the concept of ‘accepting a more humble role in the drama of development’, I suggest it is important for development workers to understand that we cannot be the providers of power when it comes to localised, or possibly national processes. If we do not hold the power initially, we cannot directly give it up. I believe it was Naila Kabeer who also said that ’empowerment’ is moving from a position of no power, to a position of greater power. We can aim to create space and support people to make that move, but we cannot do the moving ourselves.
    Thank you.

  3. Academic garbage, Duncan. Come live and work in africa (and not as an Aid-Wallah). Smell the coffee. Taste the real world. Stop spending Oxfam’s income on academic twaddle. The solutions are very simple. Give countries 40% mineral royalties. Remove pro-western and anti-western dictators peacefully by #fraudproofvoting (http://cd3wd.com). Give the people the free info they need for education and for development. Cut the BS. Alex Weir, Gaborone, Botswana, Africa

  4. Before CEDAW, there was the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women but women won the right to vote only much later in a number of countries.

    Sylvain, Saudi Arabia acceded to CEDAW in 2000. Some other countries have not, including the US, Iran, Sudan, South Sudan, Palau, Somalia.

  5. Alex

    I do various stuff around privacy and anonymity on the web. I’ve looked at the info on your site and it raised a number of questions.

    > a person gets given a special secret envelop which is logged against their National ID Number

    Who sets, controls and has access to these national ID numbers? If I were a repressive government, could I just not choose to exclude certain people from having a vote? And, even if I did give them a vote, as long as I can access part of the element that has been used to generate their code, I’m half way to breaking it?

    > Inside the sealed envelop are tables of numbers. These numbers are unique to each envelop – each envelop is different.

    I’m assuming you’re thinking of using cryptography here. What crypto method do you propose using? (In the context that some crypto-software almost certainly has been weakened by NSA; other, more secure methods, are illegal to own or use within oppressive regimes because they are (as good as) unbreakable).

    > These envelops are distributed by international volunteers over a 6-month period before the election.

    How are theses volunteers selected, and how are they known to be independent? What would stop a corrupt volunteer from not properly distributing the envelopes?

    > The person sending the SMS can use their own phone, or any other shared, commercial or NGO-provided phone or satellite phone.

    How do you propose to prevent man in the middle, spoofing and phising attacks?

    > If the 3 [auditors] are all different [on their opinion of the outcome of the vote] then there is a bigger problem, which will however be resolvable.

    How? Who has the power to resolve differences?

    > There is a series of web-pages which is visible to everyone worldwide which indicates envelop number, secret code received, date, time and outcome (success or failure). … The SMS and the envelop data files are destroyed immediately or within a fixed time period

    Having made the data available to everybody on the web (for scrutiny), how do you then propose to remove it?

    > There are procedures in place to avoid, eliminate, reduce or penalize voter intimidation, vote buying and multiple voting.

    If all of this were in place, then I’m not sure what your system adds? You seem to have come up with a ‘fraud proof’ way of voting that replies on there being no fraud. Your system does not, in and of itself, prevent fraud – rather it seems to rely on an undefined process to make sure that fraud does not happen. I would be very interested in what procedures you envisage are in place to prevent this fraud.

    I don’t understand how the issues I’ve raised can be answered without reference to power: who controls who can vote (the national ID database), who enables them to vote (those who deliver sealed envelopes, those who run the database), who can influence their vote (by, for example, stopping coercion), and who counts the vote (those that analyse the vote)?

    I hope you do get a chance to write a blog post to answer these really important questions – if not on the FP2P blog than perhaps somewhere else from which that you can share the link?

    All the best

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