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Can we really end poverty? The debate

9 December 2013
by Brian Keeley
poverty debate

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What’s it like to be poor? The question might sound dumb, even patronising, but it’s increasingly important to how the development community thinks about poverty. At its heart is the idea that no two people, no two communities, experience poverty in exactly the same way. Causes differ, experiences differ, and so can solutions.

This realisation has deepened greatly over the past 15 years or so, a period covered by the first set of Millennium Development Goals. It’s also a period that has also seen an enormous improvement in how we understand poverty, mainly through the availability of better information. This includes both internationally comparable household surveys and qualitative research like the World Bank’s Voices of the Poor survey.

“Putting these together … we are able to try to understand the different depravations that people experience,” according to Sabina Alkire of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, “and the different things that trap people in depravation in different ways. This kind of information … could feed a more adequate response to poverty.”

Dr. Alkire was one of the speakers at last week’s “Can we really end poverty?” debate in London, which we previewed recently. The debate coincided with the publication of this year’s OECD Development Co-operation Report , which examines the prospects and challenges of eradicating $1.25-a-day, or extreme, poverty by, perhaps, 2030. Many advocates believe this target should be included in the next round of Millennium Development Goals, building on the world’s success in halving extreme poverty over the course of the first set of MDGs.

If the international community is to achieve the goal of eradicating extreme poverty, a number of the panelists argued that it will need to do more to move closer to the lives of poor communities and beyond the big global and national averages that can conceal those who are being left behind.

“It’s great that averages improve, but if some individuals don’t meet those, then those averages don’t count for much,” said Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution, who has been heavily involved with the UN High Level Panel drawing up the post-MDGs development agenda. “We need to be much more fine-grained,” he said, adding that the necessary political will and resources depended on development delivering benefits to all: “We need to be thinking about developing programmes where almost everyone feels they have a stake in the progress of the country.”

Better data and the freer flow of information can help in achieving that, several of the contributors said. It can also go a long way to empowering both local and international communities to press for change. Speaking about the situation in neighbouring India, Priyanthi Fernando of the Centre for Poverty Analysis in Sri Lanka said the country’s freedom of information law had made “a huge difference. Indian bureaucrats don’t like it because they have to be much more accountable, but it has made a difference.”

And referring to the idea of “smart growth,” Jamie Drummond of the ONE advocacy group, pointed to the power that could come from the amount of data that people now have access to. “The exciting thing is when data gets into people’s hands. That’s empowerment, that’s the ‘killer app’ – it’s transformational,” he said, adding that it was “opening up a world of possibilities” to hold leaders and businesses accountable.

Inevitably, any discussion based on the premise of “ending poverty” couldn’t avoid one key question: Can it be done?

“Confident, no,” said Dr. Kharas, “hopeful, yes.” Erik Solheim, chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, was more upbeat. “There’s absolutely no doubt that we can eradicate absolute poverty by 2030,” he said, but then touched on another of the recurring “big picture” themes of the evening – the politics of poverty: “The issue that could stop us is that we’re not able to mobilise the political will.” Climate change was also a threat, he warned, but pointed to the success of Brazil in simultaneously tackling deforestation and reducing poverty. And he finished with an exhortation: “To me we should adopt the slogan of Nike: Just do it!”

Useful links

DAC Chair Erik Solheim says we can eradicate extreme poverty

OECD work on development

11 Responses
  1. December 10, 2013

    Actually in fact poverty can not be removed unless population is substantially reduced. I need not give more arguments,there are many papers on it to prove it. Look at Europe ,just put one small state of India in some of the countries then see if they can manage poverty there. Some of southern European countries are already experiencing poverty. Next MDG should focus on reducing population and providing related services, the rest is related and some is window dressing.

    • Michael permalink
      January 9, 2014

      This is simply silly. What would you propose? The Total Fertiliy Rates in most countries are falling rapidly and in many countries have been below replacement levels for decades. The declining populations of Russia and Japan should be a warning. By the time ageing populations begin to fall, a declining number of women of childbearing age can’t keep up with replacement requirements- even if they aren’t all forced to work. Dependancy ratios are bound to rise as a result, especially with family breakdown and declining adult health in the developed world. Capitalism is a form of madness.

  2. Luc Lapointe permalink
    December 10, 2013

    Dear Brian,

    Very interesting piece and once again lots of familiar names. I am writing to you from Cali Colombia where we are trying to bring all the different and new stakeholders together to put forward a pilot project in the next few weeks. Your question..can we end poverty? I think we can if and only if all feel that they are part of the solution.

    Can we keep people out of poverty? is another question!

    Cooperation agencies (from receiving countries) have a limited role that focuses on gauging ODA and hoping to keep on receiving more. They are starting to pay attention to Private efforts (PDA – as coined by Hudson Institute) but trying to keep track of 26 donors was already a major burden…having to make sense of 1000+ new stakeholders seems impossible. Each of these hyper-individual actions are so small (but very effective) that they don’t appear on anyone’s radar – these are a mix of local, regional, national, and international efforts from foundations, CSR/BSR programs, volunteering, civic participation, voluntourism, international volunteering, micro-credit, philanthropy, and a mix of all of the above.

    Internally within the same country, private efforts and domestic resources mobilization don’t really connect at the same table and the reporting mechanism are completely different.

    Sustainability in not only taking people out of poverty …but keeping them out of poverty will depend on our ability to connecting the dots…on creating the space for hyper-collective actions (as coined by Jean Michel Severino).

    The success of “aid” or “international cooperation” will rest in our ability to make ODA fit with local PDA and individual efforts where everyone has a measurable role to play.

    On August 29th, 1958 – the faith-based organizations came together and lobbied what is now the OECD to have developed countries commit to 1%. After 50+ years, the developed countries are now asking citizens, corporations, foundations to come back to the table and fill the gap.

    While some of the large organizations are at the table (OECD table) …the same efforts need to take place at the local level.

    We are hopeful to be able to showcase a local measurable hyper-collective approach to development.

  3. Daniel permalink
    December 14, 2013

    Our govenments should focus on human development, more than in making industry grow, all people should be concerted in changing this way of thinking, because if we just think in terms of growing our industry we won’t care about poor people. If we want to eradicate extreme poverty we should make our middle class grow, and control or monitor a little bit our economy because when we are talking about economic liberalism the differences in our society are going to be very significant. Help for poor people should be available when our society becomes more solidarity-oriented than liberal. But to spur people to show more solidarity is very difficult, I think that has to be a job of education.

  4. fernando permalink
    December 16, 2013

    Well, I totally agree that poverty could and must end. We have a hard work ahead of course. We have to start in the best way, but it’s not enough. Governments around the world especially in Africa must focus on investing in two specifics areas: education and developing new industries. Besides that I consider important the fact of working together.

  5. December 16, 2013

    A government should have as a major issue the development of the people. Poverty must be eradicated because a lot of people suffer as a consequence of it. The video was really compelling, it presented an interesting point of view. In order to get to a sustainable panacea, it requires the help of society as a whole. People must realize that material things are temporal, and that we must all help for every one in our world reach a life with dignity. No one can diminish this problem, it requires all our effort to get a positive effect in our world.

  6. Dr Sanjay Thapa permalink
    December 31, 2013

    Dear Brain,
    With reference to your observations over MDGs i am afraid most countries are even failing to do justice on those basic needs for humanity and $ 1.25 a day makes a mockery of the fact that it is the average of the least among LDCs. Interestingly if you increase this figure to $ 2 a day in India alone people below poverty line will jump from the official 22 percent to 56 percent. The manner in which economists decide on the poverty line is not only inhuman bad a joke, coming up with statistics.
    And we have to understand these statistics are not numbers but people who see their kids dying because of basic needs the state can’t fulfill even after 13 completed years of MDGs. Now if we consider the hypothesis can poverty come to end, it is debatable for that we have to have a consensus on the path people, governments, civil society have to adopt in light of the fact that G7 countries control over 65 percent of the wealth on the planet.

    I personally feel the biggest obstacle in fighting poverty is growing inequality the between have and havenots. Take any country as an example, like the US where the super rich are dominating and thriving under recession and middle class is struggling.
    There have been food riots in over 123 countries and there was a cover story in The Economist stating $20 trillion are missing due to tax evasion and tax havens.
    In light of these few observations first we have to understand the growth models, since Arthur Lewis etc to neoclassical growth models and then endogenous growth theory (Romer and Robert Lucas Jr) in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the present. To address poverty first we have to put on the table real issues like inequality and tax evasion, basic social needs and the duties of the state, in the present regime of the WTO bypassing parliaments in the name of treaties, and we have to debate free trade versus fair trade, etc.

  7. January 3, 2014

    Dear Brian,
    First, this forum is an excellent idea to free flow of information to help achieving real goals concerning resilience in this second round of MDG.
    Second, the way the development community thinks about poverty will make the difference. I do agree that an enormous improvement has been made in how we understand poverty, but new questions are needed in poverty researches. It is a radical difference between all initiatives made to date to eradicate poverty and the new Nomic Resilience programmes focused on poverty eradication. Many global development institutions are mainly focused only on economic solutions. Although multidimensional alternatives have been claimed to truly achieve these MFGs, very few has been done. Economists keep saying that 0+1=1, but psychology maths are different: 0+1= -1. Giving money to people in poverty causes dependency on them to receive more, without learning to cope with their economic adversities. So, a Rule of Nomic Resilience may say: 0+R+t=10 !!! Teach nomic resilience and in mid term people will cope with most of their economic adversities. Many political efforts are focused on urgent needs and forget all the important matters of true development. Focusing not into eradicating poverty but into developing resilient persons in a solid and continuous improvement, will lead to achieve more MDG. Relieve urgent status will only keep all minds into poverty.
    Third, an enormous improvement in how we understand poverty will make the difference. There are more factors that trap people in depravation and have to be considered. Asilient Anomie has been flourishing for hundreds of years reproducing poverty. If no one takes actions to stop the reproduction of poverty it will be impossible to eradicate it. First of all, it is compulsory to stop Asilient Anomie production!!! No one has ever spoken about these methods to stop permanently the production of Asilient Anomie and so stopping poverty. The correct use of verbs is a big improvement. It is no longer the goal to eradicate but stop to reproduce it. Changing the verb to give by to make Nomic Resilient people. To empower people instead of to make them dependents. To consider all people as competent instead of seeing them as poor people. Understanding asilient anomie may promote better comprehension of poverty and a more adequate response to it, never considered before.
    Understanding Asilient Anomie is much more than understanding learned incompetence, as Martin Seligman mentions it. Asilient Anomie is a scientific construct made up of 8 variables: not being able to cope, dependency, low self-esteem, irresponsibility, hopelessness and pessimism, unintelligent sociability and intolerance to frustration.
    Actually, Asilient Anomie is the opposite of Nomic Resilience, which is constructed by 8 pillars: coping, autonomy, self-esteem, awareness, responsibility, hope and optimism, intelligent sociability, and frustration tolerance.
    All above has to be much carefully analysed. Developing programmes are needed for most every youngster to allow them to be more nomic resilient in the next 15 years. Even though it is not urgent, it is an intelligent response to human development. It implies real strategic planning. Children that are now in primary school will be 20 years old by then and will be coping resiliently all adversities and depravation. That will be a smart growth, which means that main efforts have to be focused in promoting nomic resilience during early education in schools and in homes. Also, to have a good progress it is convenient to Certify Educative Centres with Resilient Dynamism (ECRD). That is opening up a world of better and real possibilities. Can it be done? Sir Wallace in Newham, London, has shown results with the programme Resilience for all (1), as well as Resilience for all schools in South Australia, a University of Pennsylvania programme (2). Not everything is about political will!! Pathfinders considering other factors are needed!! Of course much more accountable bureaucrats will help. Many questions were asked in the 2013 World Economic Forum (3) in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, where a Resilient dynamism for companies was discussed. Actually, new questions are needed!! Is there a need to be bureaucrat’s dependants to cope with our adversities? Can it be done in a multidimensional approach?




    Best Regards,
    Dr. D. Flores O.

  8. Malcolm Whitmore permalink
    January 6, 2014

    We have adopted a system caled democracy that is not going to work in its present form as it is so easily controlled by the elite . They exercise this control by their ownership of financial and media resources. This means that the poverty elimination program will not succeed.
    This problem results in the increasing gap between rich and poor throughout the world spreading throughout the world in contrast to the post WW2period that saw inequality reduce because the elite were not in control.
    The financial and asset resources of democratic governments are being weakened progressively by these elite powers ,with the justification of the need for austerity in our financial crisis. This means that the possibility of establishing a world collective of nations is disappearing fast.
    Without real political change matters will get worse as the mantra of unlimited growth impels each nation to take part in the Global Race that benefits primarily the rich elite. The limits to growth threaten all nations with climate change,resource deletion,energy scarcity,water shortages and pollution growth.

  9. ZURAH KAN permalink
    June 10, 2015

    Yes poverty can be ended through encouraging the lazy poeple to work. For example in Africa, particularly in Uganda where I come from, some people wake up in the morning and go into a bar, while others waste time in sports betting. So with such laziness we cannot easily eradicate poverty. But if the government tries to sensitize the people about different ways of fighting poverty, I think we can at least achieve something.

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