Development – now with added politics

I’m currently immersed in writing the main pamphlet for my project on food prices with Chatham House (hence not much posting for the last few days) – but I have to take ten minutes out to sing the praises of the gorgeous piece of writing I’ve been immersed in for the past couple of hours.

The paper in question is Escaping Poverty Traps: the Chronic Poverty report 2008-09, from the Chronic Poverty Research Centre.  The title, admittedly, makes it sound like any other international development report of the sort that fill cardboard boxfiles in great reams of unread worthiness in people’s offices around the world.  But don’t be fooled.  This is an edgy, push-the-envelope, fundamentally political piece of work. 

What makes it so, above all, is its understanding of what poverty actually is.  The report brushes aside the dry platitudes about the number of people living on less than a dollar a day, and brings the reader face to face with the nature of social exclusion.  In particular, it explores five kinds of poverty trap:

Insecurity, including conflict and violence, but also economic crises and natural hazards;

Limited citizenship, where the report bluntly calls for us all to “move beyond the good governance agenda, and purely technocratic interventions around ‘getting institutions right’ or ‘strengthening civil society'”, and focusing instead on “individuals’ engagement in the political sphere”;

Spatial disadvantage, through four overlapping dimensions, including remoteness, natural resource endowments, political disadvantage and weak integration;

Social discrimination, including social relationships of power, patronage and competition that entrap people in exploitative relationships; and

Poor work opportunities, caused by low or non-existent growth, or by growth happening only in enclaves.

As this kind of analysis makes clear, this is anything but a technical agenda.  It also underscores commonalities across different kinds of countries: so while the report’s clear about the particular challenges of working in ‘chronically deprived countries’, it also stresses that these traps can and do afflict poor people in much higher income countries too.

So what should donors do about all this?  One of the approaches that the report’s keenest on is social protection systems (which I’ve written about here before, and which will be the focus of one of the main parts of my food pamphlet).  These can take many forms – food vouchers, pensions, payment for public works, conditional cash transfers, skills training and so on – but in all cases the key is that the assistance is targeted at society’s most vulnerable people, with a view to helping them manage, prevent and ultimately overcome their vulnerability.

As that objective implies, social protection’s an agenda that’s very much about promoting grassroots resilience (something we could do with more of here in Britain as well).  But the authors of the Chronic Poverty report think it can help to produce something else as well: durable social compacts between states and their citizens, that in turn point directly towards effective, legitimate, responsive and accountable states.

This kind of approach to development is exciting.  It’s practical, tangible, full of ideas you can see working in practice; but it’s also about real world politics, where there are vested interests, obstacles to change, coalitions that need to be built and sustained.  As the consensus on international development that was put together in 2005 starts to come due for renewal, this is the direction in which the development agenda needs to head.