books development equality poverty

From Poverty to Power, by Duncan Green

I regularly drop in on Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power blog, so the book has been on my reading list for a little while now. Green is head of research at Oxfam, and the book is a kind of development reader, a broad attempt to envision approaches that work.

From Poverty to Power is subtitled ‘how active citizens and effective states can change the world’, and the theme of empowerment runs through it. It’s a corrective to an oversimplified view of poverty that has seen economic deprivation as the sole problem. Raise the incomes of the poor, which is best done through economic growth, and your troubles are over.

“Poverty has many dimensions,” says Green. Poverty can be understood as powerlessness, or ‘unfreedom’ to use Amartya Sen’s term. As well as raising income, we need to redistribute power and assets, create opportunity and break the cycle of poverty.  It needs “a wider notion of wellbeing, springing from health, physical safety, meaningful work, connection to community, and other non-monetary factors. That is why good development practices build on the skills, strengths, and ideas of people living in poverty – on their assets – rather than treating them as empty receptacles of charity.” Active citizens will guide the process from the bottom up, and effective states will clear the obstacles and create the right frameworks – ensuring justice, democracy, and functioning markets.

Looking at development from this perspective brings a host of new priorities, from rights, to land reform, to participative democracy. Equality is a recurring priority for Green, between rich and poor, and men and women. Inequality wastes talent, he argues, freezing out sectors of society. It undermines government and fosters unhealthy elitism, and transmits poverty across generations. Good development is fair development, and places like Taiwan and Vietnam prove that you can have growth with equity.

The book establishes this philosophy of empowerment through a series of chapters on power and politics entitled ‘I read therefore I am, ‘I vote therefore I am’ and so on. It explores the power relationships of literacy, corruption, community organising, showing how each can affect change. The principles of active citizenship and effective states are  then applied across various risks and vulnerabilities, from HIV to conflict management, to disaster response, even to nomadic tribes.  (This section on risk and vulnerability brings a focus on resilience as a key to good development. It struck me as an interesting parallel to resilience thinking in the West, through movements like Transition Towns.)

This is all very well, but the real world doesn’t work like this. We have top down development, the Washington Consensus, competing NGOs and corrupt governments. So the final section asks ‘who runs the world?’ and makes suggestions for how each level of governance could improve and work better. There’s an important balance here. Community activism works well for some problems, but others need global governance. Climate change needs to be sorted out at the highest levels, even as adaptation rolls out at the lowest.

Along the way there are case studies and examples, many from Oxfam. There are asides on ‘how change happens’ and a literature review of writing on aid, as well as detailed appendices. It’s pretty comprehensive and is a useful reference as well as an argument. I got it from the library and am kicking myself for not buying it, as I’ve used an entire pack of post-its marking things to look up or make a note of.

Three other reviews on aid and development:




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