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Eradication of poverty: Some gains and other nagging doubts

Map of world poverty by country, showing percentage of population living on less than $2 per day in 2008, according to the World Bank Photograph: (Others)

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Oct 18, 2016, 06.12 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha

As the promise of development reverberates all over the world, it’s march continues to stand challenged by the ubiquitous presence of poor people. Poverty is a complicated social phenomena, which has often been reduced to numerical terms whereby anyone earning less than $2 per day has been designated as ‘poor’. But the United Nations has refused to understand poverty simply as material deprivation that stems from income inequality. Instead, it proposes a definition that includes a lace of interrelated factors, such as limited access to health facilities, education, and denial or abuse of fundamental human rights. Thus, in its call for the eradication of poverty which went out for the first time on October 17, 1987 and has been renewed every year since then, the UN pledges to ‘end poverty in all its forms everywhere’.  

From ‘victims’ to agents of change

As experts struggled with delineating the root causes of poverty, the developmental economists at the end of the Second World War attempted theorising poverty and economic growth along a new path, which emphasised the use of modern scientific knowledge, technological inputs and norms of free-market economy. A triangulation of these factors, they argued, would not only help to eradicate poverty but meet the ‘rising expectations’ of millions. Poverty, along with hunger, in the new economic discourse, came to be seen as fueling communist incursions in parts of the Third World, particularly India. So, the argument ran that the newly decolonised countries of Asia and Africa, which were placed at the bottom of the newly construed developmental scale, need to emulate the developmental path of the capitalist West to come out of the ‘waiting room’ of development.

 

Poverty, along with hunger, in the new economic discourse, came to be seen as fueling communist incursions in parts of the Third World, particularly India.
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In the tensed atmosphere of  the Cold War, eradication of poverty and the quest for development, therefore, took up a strong ideological connotation. The economic argument around poverty galvanised into a more acrimonious political tussle between the communist and capitalist blocs.  Along with military aid, and perhaps more effectively, both power blocs used food and technological aid as well as rural development assistance to entice Asian and African countries into their respective camps. The aid-giving nations reiterated the importance of eradicating poverty to ensure political stability. For a newly independent country, such as India that had been suffering from the after effects of partition, the traumas of the famine of 1943, and repeated crop failures, such exhortations were appealing. More importantly, it was crucial for the survival of the new nation-state.

The spectre of ‘social unrest’ has continued to haunt development experts. The UN secretary-general in his message this year on 17 October, for example, established a causal connection between poverty and social unrest. While poverty causes humiliation and exclusion, these are, according to Ban Ki-moon, ‘powerful drivers of social unrest and, in extreme cases, the violent extremism that is troubling so many parts of our world.’

While it is problematic to seek a simple causal relationship between violence and poverty, the UN has at least been showing willingness to break away from its past tradition of relying overwhelmingly on bureaucrats and policymakers to develop an effective campaign against poverty by engaging with the very people who suffer from systemic socio-economic inequalities.

This willingness to engage with the poor, even when a plan on how it should be done is still lacking, indicates a tectonic mental shift. The UN resolution on poverty shows that it is moving away from a token recognition to those who have fallen ‘victims’ to extreme poverty, violence and hunger to making them equal ‘participants’ in eradication programmes.

 

The UN resolution on poverty shows that it is moving away from a token recognition to those who have fallen ‘victims’ to extreme poverty, violence and hunger to making them equal ‘participants’ in eradication programmes.
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Over the years, the UN has come to recognise poverty as more of an act of disempowerment and exclusion rather than playing the old script of victimhood. Suffering from lack of ‘inequalities in income, wealth and opportunity’, poor are, definitely, a victim. But while poverty is a debilitating phenomena, the deprived people of the world are increasingly turning their economic challenges to question political power and address structural inequalities. The Dalit community in India have in recent times vociferously protested the poverty and exploitation facing their communities.

The UN’s assertion on giving the common people an agency - a voice in programme formulation -  defies  a simple narrative of victimhood. It is an acknowledgement that those who are struggling against poverty, their experience should count as expertise. Rather than projecting them as mere beneficiaries of development, the experience of the poor has at last gained a centrality in strategies to build a sustainable future for all. This recognition that people whose lives are impacted by decisions should be made a party to that decision is a far cry from relying on assumed objectivity of handful of experts who have had dominated policy-making scenario so far.

Poverty and Women

Economic development and eradication of poverty constituted the central plank of Indian nationalists movement in the first half of the twentieth century. The mainstream nationalists belonging to the Indian National Congress party did not based its critique of foreign rule on racial differences, but on what they understood as the British government’s lack of initiative in bringing economic growth and purposeful drain of the country’s wealth. It is understandable, therefore, when the Congress Party came to power in 1947, it set about to translate its economic goals into developmental practices. Though the poverty alleviation programme in India aimed to overcome both rural and urban destitution, its central focus was the Indian villages. This is understandable considering the preponderance of poor people in the Indian countryside. 

National data on poverty from the mid-2000s shows that in  absolute terms of the 30 crore persons below poverty line (BPL) in the country, about 22 crore, i.e. 73 per cent live in rural areas. This is in spite of the fact that the percentage of population below the official poverty line in India has declined from around 55 per cent in the mid-1970s to 27.5 per cent in the mid-2000s. 

 

the percentage of population below the official poverty line in India has declined from around 55 per cent in the mid-1970s to 27.5 per cent in the mid-2000s. 
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India’s tryst with village development took many forms, ranging from land reforms, village cooperative movements, panchayati raj, to a motley mix of  technological innovations that were designed to raise production, address structural inequities and bring about rural prosperity. The most dramatic of these measures came in the late 1960s when the Indian government in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation and US agricultural universities launched the green revolution campaign. This was followed in 1971 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s populist call to end poverty (garibi hatao) which initiated a series of poverty alleviation programme, but little was achieved as very little of the fund actually reached the poorest of the poor. 

The most ambitious programme to boost up rural income, however, took place in 2005 when the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) was passed guaranteeing 100 days of paid casual employment to people on public works in the rural areas. The Act, unlike any other in the past, promises statutory minimum wage and has been considered to be a ‘huge step as a social security measurement’ of the rural poor. Scholars have noted that the most spectacular feature of the Act has been in empowering rural women in India. 

In a survey undertaken in 2008 covering six north Indian states of  Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, researchers concluded  that NREGA has provided income-earning opportunities to women in areas where hardly any existed before. Half of the women in the sample said, had they not worked on the NREGA worksites, they would have worked at home or would have remained unemployed. This could be either because women do not have many other employment opportunities (locally and even otherwise in some cases) or women workers are, ‘as a rule’, paid less than their male counterparts in rural and urban casual wage work.

 

Looking at the response from widows separately, 82 per cent in the sample considered NREGA ‘very important’. More than two-thirds of the sample workers stated the NREGA had helped them avoid hunger.
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Many female respondents said the work provided under the NREGA has opened up new opportunities.  Looking at the response from widows separately, 82 per cent in the sample considered NREGA ‘very important’. More than two-thirds of the sample workers stated the NREGA had helped them avoid hunger, while 57 per cent stated the NREGA had helped them avoid migration and equal proportion of workers also said they had used NREGA wages to buy medicines in the last 12 months. Women reported easier access to credit from local moneylenders to meet food expenditures; there were some indications from the interviews of a diversification of diets, even if only very marginally, from a cereal-dominated diet.

The Missing Links 

Studies have shown that poverty eradication, like the menace itself, is a complicated process. Simple economic measures fail to address the problem as its roots are deeply located in social structures and the functioning of developmental regimes. With all its promises, NREGA has failed to provide 100 days of work to most job card holders; because of long-held taboos of women working outside home, women persistently face problem in acquiring job opportunities. Even when joint income puts a family in better financial position, the men resist women earning as much as they do. 

Beyond these structural and social constraints to poverty eradication, Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva insists that anyone serious about ending global poverty needs to understand the ‘true’ causes responsible for its perpetuation. 

Shiva, therefore, dwells with conflicting perceptions of poverty and draws a bipolar distinction between how the West defines poverty vis-a-vis the rest of the world. She argues that, economies that are based on sustenance, and not on economic growth, can ensure a high quality of life; however, instead of GDP, the quality of life, in this case, has to be measured in in terms of access to good food and water, opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, robust social and cultural identity, and a sense of meaning in people's lives.

Thus, Shiva does not see economic development as ‘cure’ for world poverty; instead, she considers it to be a trigger of economic inequality as it denies more and more people access to the wealth of the commons. So, the people who earns less than one-dollar-a-day does not die from poverty if their lands remain unappropriated, and industrial agriculture does not destroy the water resources and biodiversity of the area. For Shiva, the true poverty is when the people have to purchase their basic needs at high prices no matter how much income they make. 

 

For Shiva, the true poverty is when the people have to purchase their basic needs at high prices no matter how much income they make. 
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With some gains, and still many unresolved issues, eradication of poverty is one of the stiffest challenges that the world is facing is today. Nations bent on waging wars and keen to spend money on militarisation will do good to remember this. 

The author writes here in a personal capacity.

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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