I have given a presentation today at an International Symposium in Istanbul, Turkey, organised by Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakif University and Sosyal Politikalar Dernegi. The argument was this:
The Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers have become a significant experiment in world governance. Poverty is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon, and responses to poverty need to be adapt to a wide range of circumstances. In the belief that deliberative democracy is the route to prosperity, international organisations have directed governments around the world to undertake a process of strategic planning, based on participative development and negotiation of policy with stakeholders. However, the emphasis in the PRSPs seems to have fallen more on the methods they use than the substance of the strategies. Democracy is not valued only for its process; it matters what it achieves. If PRSPs are to help the poor, they need to extend their focus, moving beyond procedural issues towards substantive policies that stand to benefit the poor.
Here is a copy of the slides and a copy of the paper.
David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party, is reported this week as saying: “We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it’s as if these things — obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction — are purely external events like a plague or bad weather. Of course, circumstances — where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make — have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make.” In one sense, this has to be true. However, the sentiment Cameron is expressing invites condemnation of the poor, and for that reason it should be treated with great caution. Poor people do not have the choice of avoiding poverty; the nature of poverty is that it limits choices. Condemning people with very little choice for making the wrong decisions seems peculiarly callous.
I should explain the title of this comment, for the enlightenment of those who haven’t had the benefit of a merciless British education. “Musical chairs” is a children’s game. There are fewer chairs than children, the children run round the chairs in a circle, and when the music stops, they have to try to sit down. Those who do not sit down in time are out. Now of course it is true that those children who sit down tend to be those who are faster, bigger or quicker. The children who hesitate tend to have made the wrong choice, and they have probably reacted more slowly. But it would be ridiculous to blame the children who lose; the game has been designed that way. The same is true of poverty. People who lose out are often less well qualified, less connected, or slower. They may have flaws of character; they may not have responded to opportunities; they may have made the wrong choices. It does not follow that their poverty is their fault. It is more important to ask whether society shouldn’t provide a few more chairs for people to sit on.
I submitted a response to the Government Economic Strategy: a copy is available here, in PDF format.
Having made the effort to respond to the consultation, I was interested to see how the report on the consultation would represent the answers. I was surprised to see the statement that everyone had approved the government’s priorities, when I had written that I did not; so I went back to the original submissions and compared the comments with the report on the consultation.
There were three significant differences. First, the report claimed that everyone had approved the priorities; it was clear that many, like myself, did not. Second, the government had asked whether it had the balance of prevention and response right, and the report claimed that it did. I had argued against the fashion for preventative work, but I was very much in a minority; the majority of other respondents took the opposite view, and felt the government had put too little emphasis on prevention. Third, the report claimed that respondents favoured the government taking a leading role. Most respondents argued against that, believing that change had to come from the bottom up.