Continuing from the article on the oversimplification of “poverty”, to developing principles that will help navigate the complex landscape that it actually is:
1. The most significant thing is the stories.
If you relate to the individuals and communities strongly, then the keenness to help, and help in a manner they need, yields results. Recent examples include this talk on the Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and this great book by Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers. While it is always a little strange to see one’s own country and people through the lens of someone from another culture, it is a big learning curve because you learn to identify (and then hopefully abandon) the subjective opinions/assumptions you have had growing up.
Also, “the poor” don’t necessarily want the things you want for them. They don’t want less, or want for things any differently that people in other economic brackets. They might miss a meal but they want cell phones. They may not really want an idyllic rural existence. So it is probably a good tactic to not pile interventions from the top down.
2. What is effective policy for economic growth?
“Aid, trade, security, governance…is still the waterfront for effective policy” according to Paul Collier.
The debate on aid, especially international aid, is best elucidated by reading the works by Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly, and the book Poor Economics. In a social experiment with bednet distribution and purchase in Kenya with varying percentages of discounts via vouchers, the authors of Poor Economics discovered that (1) partial discounts did not help with purchase, (2) free or purchased bednets were indeed used, and (3) people who got free bednets were more likely to purchase them the second time around. “People don’t get used to handouts, they get used to nets. Maybe we should give them more credit” says Esther Duflo in response to the worry that handouts are likely to topple the free market.
Contradictions plague all four aspects: aid, trade, security, governance. For instance, is trade and economic growth inevitably the gospel for lifting the poor out of their situation? Are democracies unequivocally better for economic growth? So while Collier may be right about it being the “waterfront for effective policy”, one cannot assume the universality of these principles on ground interventions.
In explaining the gap between the West and “the rest”, Niall Ferguson lists competition, the Scientific Revolution, property rights, modern medicine, consumer society, and work ethic as the six factors that determined the income differences between nations.
Of all these, I do believe that property rights, consumerism, competition, and work ethic are important, but ironically, not in the manner that Ferguson purports. My understanding is that self-reliance and self-service are increasingly relevant for people lifting themselves out of even abject poverty, and this is illustrated in the same series of steps by multiple people: invest in small scale, local entrepreneurs from these communities, give them the microfinance and social support structure they need, and wait as they pay their loans off and emerge out of their economic condition, instead of resorting to IMF-style government loans that have proliferated debt.
3. There is need for a “critical mass of informed citizenry”
Agenda 21 was a source for opening governance in several countries. While the success of such policies has been different from place to place, it is a step in the right direction, but not quite there yet. And it’s success requires going beyond just voting for government. It extends to active participation, which is a greater degree of involvement. And this in turn raises the issue of participants expecting returns for their involvement that would warrant the effort of participation. That is one challenge.
The second is that for most interventions the technology is there and the infrastructure is there, but the problem is of “the last mile”. Therefore, a huge part of any intervention has to be dialogue between the community and those intervening. Consistent dialogue. This is a point where I re-iterate the issue on giving the communities you are intervening in what they need and not what you think they want or need.
4. They build and grow incrementally.
Stewart Brand’s talk on squatter cities is one of my favourite illustrations of this issue. Another is this survey + case study by Mohini Malhotra on the financing of homes for the poor in countries in the Global South. The lesson is this: if a large chunk of the city lives in informal settlements, top-down interventions are likely rarely helpful.
5. Everyone wants an education and good health. But there are opportunity costs.
Do the children need lunch? Do the girls need bathrooms? Is distance a problem? Is consistency a problem? Do kids need deworming?
Identify the problems that plague a particular community. Try to club alleviating that with your proposed goal.
This tactic goes beyond education. In Udaipur (Rajasthan, India), Esther Duflo observed that bringing immunization camps closer to home resulted in an 11% rise in immunized children, while in close camps with an added incentive of a kilo of free lentils, the rise was 32%. Also, the cost of camps providing the incentives was actually half that of the cost of camps that didn’t.
6. Why the difference between poverty in the Global South and elsewhere?
It is interesting how various well-being indices are related to per capita income in countries with large populations in poverty, but then beyond a certain economic stage of development of a nation, studies find that there is no correlation between well-being and per capita income. This risk of social dysfunction correlated to income inequality is something to consider even in “developing nations”.
Poverty is not just an absolute situation. It can also be a relative one, and in trying to achieve poverty alleviation by mindsets and tactics like the “trickle down”, there is the risk of bringing communities above the Poverty Line but then dumping them into a state of relative poverty with respect to the richest in their own nations.
I’d like to end with this TED talk by Hans Rosling, that provides a quirky, interesting way of looking at the differences between the “Global South” and the “West” in terms of economic growth and development metrics.
7. It is important to do social experiments.
Esther Duflo contests that it is just as crucial to “experiment” in the social sphere as it is in the technological domain. This will a very slow process, ideologies must be trumped by practicality, and most of all, connections with the communities must be made and developed. But at least it will take the guesswork out of policy. And at best it will help actualize the goal of alleviating poverty beyond castles in the air and bestsellers on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
If there are points to add to this list of 7, please feel free to do so! I could only work up this list of 7 based on my own experiences and learning.