It’s more than thirty years that Amartya Sen made the fundamental argument in Poverty and Famines (1981) that the problem of hunger is not about shortage of food, but people’s right to get to the food that was there. The Right to Food campaign in India seems to have won the argument. A bill currently under consideration accepts the principle of a right to food, and aims to deliver it by subsidies of basic grains.
There are doubts, of course, about India’s capacity to deliver the right effectively. And, as reported last month, a third of the world’s poorest people are in India.
Many people working on poverty issues are sceptical of the measures used by the World Bank, based on poverty lines of $1.25 or $2 a day. While the figures can’t be taken at face value, it’s doubtful that income at that level can be ‘measured’, very low incomes do tell us two things: that lots of people are poor, and that as there is almost no money they are probably not part of a formal economy either.
A short statistical report from the World Bank, The state of the poor, flags up some interesting issues. The first is that extreme poverty by their measure is falling in most parts of the world, with the clear exception of Sub Saharan Africa, Second, while a third of the poorest people are in Sub Saharan Africa, and a third more are in one country – not China, which has 13% of the poorest people, but India. (I missed the World Bank report when it came out, but the Times of India didn’t.) The Millennium Development Goals aimed to cut extreme poverty by half, and that has been done; the next goal is to go for half again by 2030, and these places are where the main focus will fall.
A paper for the World Bank questions whether green growth policies are good for the poor. Stefan Dercon argues: “High labor intensity, declining shares of agriculture in gross domestic product and employment, migration, and urbanization are essential features of poverty-reducing growth. … trade offs are bound to exist. … the poor should not be asked to pay the price for sustaining growth while greening the planet.”
The argument is not new; it is perhaps more remarkable for its source. In The Future of Socialism, Tony Crosland argued that higher personal consumption – consumption, not just formal economic growth – is fundamental to the living standards of the poor. The policy he advocated was not to achieve maximum growth, or even high growth relative to other countries, but to improve people’s position over time, because that was necessary to achieve greater equality. Later, in Socialism Now, he added a crucial rider: that without growth, redistribution would be impossible. “I do not of course mean that rapid growth will automatically produce a transfer of resources of the kind we want … but I do dogmatically assert that in a democracy low or zero growth excludes the possibility.” Those arguments seem to me to apply with equal force to the developing world; and they raise the question whether it is possible to be pro-green and pro-poor at the same time.
The World Bank has just issued a new report, Empowering Women, which reviews the legal rights of women in sub-Saharan Africa. The report is listed as being for sale from 15th October, but most World Bank reports are also available as a free PDF and I found the link here, in a 6 Mb download.
The report focuses on laws that establish the framework for other rights, including marriage and divorce, inheritance and property rights. The findings are depressing, though perhaps not as depressing as the book’s publicity suggests. The positive elements are that 45 out of 47 countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and if 21 out of 47 subject women’s rights to the authority of a head of household, that should mean that 26 don’t. The Appendix listing court cases also point to many examples of women’s rights being upheld or extended. The authors note, though, that the effect of common law, dual legal systems and the gaps between theory and practice all work to limit women’s rights, and that the effect of formalisation (e.g. in Kenya) may well be not to extend protection but to institutionalise disadvantage.
The Economist devotes this week’s cover, and its main leader, to a story about the expansion of social protection in Asia. One of the main unsung tales of the last ten years has been the massive development of social protection in developing economies like South Africa, Mexico, India, Indonesia, China and Brazil – Barrientos and Hulme call it a “quiet revolution”. The Economist article focuses mainly on health care, and Asia has come late to the party. The Economist is probably right to argue that “every country that can afford to build a welfare state will come under mounting pressure to do so.” But then, I would say that: I have argued the case in The Welfare State (Sage, 2000) and some other papers.
The Economist’s leader does, however, make a common mistake. They write: “Europe’s welfare states began as basic safety nets. But over time they turned into cushions.” They didn’t begin that way, and they haven’t finished that way either. The origins of many welfare states lie in the development of solidarity and the mutuals; the state became involved much later. See Peter Baldwin’s book, The politics of social solidarity, Cambridge University Press 1990. The extension of health care, which they focus on, is essential to the maintenance of any modern labour force.
It was the English Poor Law that began as a safety net. The accusations that the British system had become excessively generous can be dated back to the criticisms of the monasteries before the Reformation, but it became a regular part of complaints about welfare from the mid-18th century onwards; it continued in the accusations that workhouses had become ‘pauper places’; and it continues now in the assertion, contrary to all the evidence, of generations who have ‘never worked’. The system is neither generous at an individual level, nor collectively unaffordable. There is extensive evidence of the relationship of welfare to economic performance: there isn’t one. See A B Atkinson, 1995, The welfare state and economic performance, in Incomes and the welfare state, Cambridge University Press, and the entry on my website.
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.
This table is drawn from a recent study looking at the fall of mortality in Kenya. It points to a general trend: across Africa, more children are surviving.
Under 5 mortality (per 1000 live births)
||Previous studies (1998-2007)
||Most recent study (2005-2009)|
||74 (2009) |
Stephen Radelet, in Emerging Africa?, claims that the factors behind this improvement are
- “more democratic and accountable governments
- more sensible economic policies,
- the end of the debt crisis and major changes in relationships with the international community
- new technologies that are creating new opportunities for business and political accountability, and
- a new generation of policymakers, activists, and business leaders.”
There are problems – such as the recent (hopefully short term) increase in mortality in Liberia. But the trend is clear, and it is very good news indeed – especially for those who are concerned about population increase, because there is a clear and strong association between infant survival and the number of children a woman must have.