04 February 2007

For pity's sake, target poverty outcomes

From an interesting and controversial essay in ‘Sp!ked’:

In re-describing poverty as ‘vulnerability to climate change’, the result appears to be a rejection of aspirations to modernise agriculture. Instead, there is the opposite emphasis: the design of plans that reinforce the social and economic marginalisation of many African people. Rather than development being safeguarded by the modernisation and transformation of African society, underdevelopment is subsidised through the provision of social support for subsistence farming and nomadic pastoralism. …

The ‘adaptation agenda’ allows Western governments, international institutions and international NGOs to claim they are doing something positive to address the impact of global warming but the consequences for Africa could be disastrous. ‘Learning from the poor’, ‘empowering the poor’ and strategies to increase their ‘resilience’, end up patronising Africa’s poor and supporting an anti-development agenda that would consign Africa to a future of poverty - and climate dependency. Forcing Africans to ‘adapt’ to poverty, Prof. David Chandler, 1 February
I have no expertise in development economics, but this argument, and others like it, seem to me to cry out in favour of the outcomes-based approach that I do advocate. Thousands of learned books and papers discuss the reasons for poverty in the poor countries. One decade it’s institutions or governance that is seen as the problem; the next it’s colonial history, or evolutionary psychology. The assumption seems to be that once we locate the cause of poverty, we can set about tackling it. But who is trying to identify that cause? Essentially the professional priesthood of policymakers: government employees, academics and ideologically committed think-tankers. Many of them are well-intentioned, no doubt, and there are legions of heroes around the world, working for charities who eschew the theory and are actually trying to eradicate poverty. They are not helped, in my view, by the policy people, pre-occupied as they are with finding theories that validate their prejudices.

Here’s my idea. Subordinate all approaches to the desired outcome: the eradication of poverty. Contract out the solution to the market. Then a larger group of motivated people will actually go about reducing poverty without prejudice as to what causes it. They may spend time trying to find the causes but under a Social Policy Bond regime they would do so only if that were to maximise the reduction in poverty per dollar spent in reducing it. Otherwise they will leave the identification of causes to the theoreticians and ideologues - where it belongs, along with their endless, futile, debates.

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