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!”
DAC Chair Erik Solheim says we can eradicate extreme poverty