So you want to start another organisation to combat poverty? A possible case of too many cooks spoiling the broth

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” so wrote John Lennon is his extremely well known song Imagine. Many people individually or collectively imagine they can creating something, even though they know others have already done  so. Nothing wrong with adding something that look alike to the world. It’s just another.

So say you dream of starting up another organisation or consortium or forum that aims to (as one of the major themes in the site is) combat poverty or promoting international/global development. Not something extraordinary by the way. Leaving that aside for the moment, say the simple  target is making impact to reduce poverty or classically, “poverty reduction”. First major hurdle or mountain to conquer:

Your definition of poverty?

Ok, perhaps you want to make the dream big and bring a whole range of big-wigs (academic-related) on board to make the poverty reduction impact (academically). However, you major problem lies ahead: how do you define poverty? MDG Goal 1:Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day uses the so well known target of $1 a day as the poverty line. Uh oh, so many scholars have already criticised (I said criticised, not been critical of) this target. One great scholarly work work on this target is Anand, S., Segal, P. and Stiglitz, J.E. (eds) 2010, Debates on the Measurement of Global Poverty, New York: Oxford University Press. There a range of scholars debate the the ways to measure the world’s poor. Other articles include Hulme, D. and Shepherd, A., 2003, “Conceptualising Chronic Poverty”, World Development, 31(3), pp.403-423 and Deaton, A., 2001, “Counting the World’s Poor: Problems and Possible Solutions”, The World Bank Research Observer, 16(2), pp.125-147. (and hundreds of others).

Money-metric measurements have been seen as limited. So the capability approach approach, most notably started of (but not just by) Amartya Sen in Sen, A., 2000, Development as freedom, New York: Anchor Books brought about a new dimension of poverty: that of Human Development. Many have laid the the foundations and continued on the rising issue of human development such as the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP)’s Human Development Report Office (HDRO), and scholarly work such as Sen, A., 2000, “A decade of Human Development”, Journal of Human Development, 1(1), pp.17-23, Streeten, P., 1994, “Human Development: Means and Ends”, American Economic Review, 84(2), pp.232-237, Ul Haq, M., 2003, “The human development paradigm” in Fukuda-Parr, S. And Shiva Kumar, A.K. (eds.) Readings in Human Development, New Delhi: Oxford University Press and many other names. Out of the concept of human development came the Human Development Index, the HDI, measuring three components: Health, Education and Living Standards, a measurement index that drew only extremely basic concepts from human development. Poverty thus had and expanded means of being counted for, yet using only these three components seemd to demean the whole concept of human development. Even the very first critique of the HDI by McGillvary, H. And White, H., 1993, “Measuring Development? The UNDP’s Human Development Index”, Journal of International Development, 5(2), pp.183-192 asserted that it was redundant. Lately, we have new indexes such as The Inequality-adjusted HDI, The Gender Inequality Index and the latest Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), started by Sabina Alkire et al from the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative.

The problem therein is that none of these scholars over the money-metric or HDI or MPHI indexes can find any common ground of what poverty is and how to measure it. Extrapolating it into not just the economic development or social science field, no on has any common ground as to what poverty is. Thus the range of different ideas competing. Classically, it’s World Bank (money-metric) vs the UNDP (Human Development). Many others thus adopt either side or a combination of measurements. Therefore, if there is no consensus in measuring poverty, how do we start a new poverty-reduction agency?

How do we address development?

Say your organisation is aiming to combat poverty through professional academic work. Starting off then is the classic question then: What is development/international development/global development and how do we address poverty (given that there is no consensus on what is poverty?) I’ve already given a nutshell on what is international development here. Basically, no one agree on how to approach development at all. Neoclassical economics, neoliberals, neoconservatives, left/right-wing governments, social democrats, heterodox economists you name it, they all have varying approaches towards development and their own interpretations on what is poverty. Think tanks, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), academics beyond the traditional development-related subjects all see development (home and abroad) in different shades. Which side would your new organisation take or will it create and new angle?

The “First” Question and the voice across a crowded room

So perhaps you want your organisation to reach even higher heights and trying to influence national government(s) or even international organisations. Biggest dream eh? Yes it is, considering there are think tanks such as the Overseas Development Institute (which influences UK parliamentarians and provides research knowledge for DFID), the Center for Global Development (which influences the legislature, the executive in the US and is attempting to influence European governments). Within agencies such as DFID, it already has it own research arms or groups such R4D and DFID HDRC. Within the UK itself, there’s also the IDS and the IIED (the latter lesser linked to development). Abroad and beyond CGD, there’s the DIE in Germany and GRIPS in Japan. These other organisations no doubt also have the or have had the ear of policy makers, parliamentarians and leaders. So how would your dream organisation be able to reach the range that these already established (though not necessarily credible) think tanks (not forgetting NGOs, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and others) have?

You may said social media. Well, many of the top big-wigs in these organisations already have engaged in social media or the Internet. Owen Barder from CGD has been an avid blogger, writing substantial and detailed issues which have attracted policy makers and practitioners globally. Lawrence Haddad from IDS has his own blog too (caveat saying it is not the views of IDS) which analysis on not just development issues but how UK political parties have approached development. Oxfam’s former research head and now strategic adviser Duncan Green, who does not even have a degree related to international development has written countless, mind-wrecking articles too. Given all this, what would an organisation that has a range of academics aiming to alleviate poverty (undefined and with no common view on international development) do to make float up to the soup of development knowledge and influence? Can your voice in the crowded room make any difference? Will you be the reporter with “first question” (a la the movie Deep Impact)?

It’s all nice and having delusions of grandeur to start (yet) another group that aims to combat global poverty, that is, aiming to be international development-focused. But without any common concept of poverty and development, and with other wolves already aiming for the famer’s cows, what use will your organisation be?


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