Fighting poverty

How to break the chains?
Atiur Rahman

People's own perception about the causes of poverty and ways forward must get priority attention from the policy makers. As yet, we have not come across an open debate on this vital initiative of the government between the members of the parliament of different parties either within the parliament or outside. We have not yet witnessed a fiercely fought media debate between the government and the opposition. We have not yet heard from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the opposition about their views on this plan. We have not yet come to know the commitment of all other ministers besides Finance Minister regarding their time-bound programmes and initiatives of poverty eradication.

Fighting poverty' has suddenly become the name of the game in almost all quarters of Bangladesh. The governments of all shades and colours have, of course, been giving lip services to poverty 'alleviation' strategy for many years, if not decades. The NGOs have emerged out of this concern and engaged themselves in 'fighting' poverty from varied perspectives. 'The partners' of development (more specifically aid-donors) have been pursuing this agenda since the then World Bank President McNamara pronounced his strategy of poverty alleviation in Nairobi during early seventies. Despite all these efforts poverty has been persisting all over the globe and, more importantly, in Bangladesh as well. And this has been persisting amidst significant improvement in some areas of growth particularly in agriculture and also even after greater allocation of resources to the social sectors. The question then has legitimately arisen: why this mismatch? Where have all those resources pumped in by both government and NGOs gone? Why can't we identify the blackhole? Is it corruption? Patronage? Systems loss? Transfer of public resources for private enrichment? Why the incidence of poverty is so pervasive in Bangladesh? What is more disturbing is that the incidence of hardcore poverty in significant proportion has been ridiculing all efforts at poverty alleviation. The emerging issue of ecological poverty arising out of serous degradation of environment is no less a matter of concern as well.

Given this background, the issue of poverty reduction (should have been eradication) has rightly been made central at the Paris Consortium meeting of development partners. What is more significant that this issue has been squarely placed in the context of malgovernance which Bangladesh has been sustaining for quite some time. The document which has been instrumental in posing the issue as such as "Taming Leviathan: Reforming Governance in Bangladesh An Institutional Review ( March 2002)' prepared by the World Bank. This document identifies clear linkages between poor governance and persistent poverty. "Poor governance has a particularly harsh impact on the poor who are least able to fend for themselves lacking as they do both the resources and the knowledge to assert their rights. The instruments of governance are controlled by a self-serving elite whose behaviour is reinforced by deep-rooted social norms of dominance and subservience characteristic of a patrimonial society, reinforced over years of military rule. These 'chains of poverty' can only be loosened through initiatives that extend poor people's control over their lives and expand their access to assests and their entitlements from the state ' (WB, ibid, P.iv). No doubt, the emphasis of the development partners was sharply focused on the issue of governance, more particularly on that of law and order which has been compounding ' insecurity of poor people and women.' You may feel disturbed when outsiders point out about our dismal state failures or one may feel slighted when they dictate conditionalities like improving governance (particularly law and order) for poverty reduction, but the fact remains that we have not done our own homework and prepared home- grown agenda for pro-poor development. If we did this we could have now established meaningful dialogue with them with regards to poverty reduction. Despite strong pressures from 'outsiders' and persistence of grinding poverty within, we still remain half-hearted and not fully committed towards finalizing a genuinely people oriented development strategy which could have taken poverty reduction as its central element.

The way we are currently preparing the poverty reduction strategy plan (PRSP) may beg many questions at the end of the day. As it is being approached, the on-going PRSP initiative remains adhoc, partial and consultant- centred. As such it cannot be claimed that effective people's participation has been taking place in the process. An acceptable PRSP must be derived from a meaningful dialogue between the people and the government. People's own perception about the causes of poverty and ways forward must get priority attention from the policy makers. As yet, we have not come across an open debate on this vital initiative of the government between the members of the parliament of different parties either within the parliament or outside. We have not yet witnessed a fiercely fought media debate between the government and the opposition. We have not yet heard from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the opposition about their views on this plan. We have not yet come to know the commitment of all other ministers besides Finance Minister regarding their time-bound programmes and initiatives of poverty eradication. Where is the integrated matrix of public expenditure for say next five years which could be the guideline for the programmes to respond to the needs of the people that were supposed to have been prioritised by them in people's forum? The consultation with the secretaries of different ministries is welcomed but cannot be the basis for preparing guideline for poverty reduction strategy. What will be link between PRSP's matrix and the upcoming rational budget or for that matter the sixth five year plan? Appropriate allocation figures need to be committed by each ministry towards poverty reduction on appropriate projects / programmes as prioritised by the people themselves. The next year's budget will have to be a testing ground for PRSP exercise. We have been analysing national budget from the perspective of the poor and know exactly how difficult it is to get people's prioritisation on public expenditure. I am not, therefore, sure if the government is prepared to undergo this rigour in terms of the entire process of budgeting, planning and designing the development agenda based on national consensus for meeting the challenges of poverty reduction with time-bound target to be achieved. Many countries have, of course, started this policy reorientation. Hopefully, the Bangladesh government is moving in this direction as well; for there is no other option left for us at this moment of time. We have missed many buses of opportunities in the past when people were prepared to participate willingly to get involved in this fight against poverty (e.g. immediately after liberation and as well as after the overthrow of military rule in 1990). It is high time that we better going. There are many successful examples of people's participation, particularly in the arenas of environment protection and gender-sensitive development. We should learn from these grassroots initiatives and prepare ground for a comprehensive policy drive for poverty reduction.

However, as I said earlier the on-going initiative for preparing a plan for poverty reduction has not yet become effectively participatory. Neither it is visible. Had it been genuinely participatory, the very discourse on poverty could have been more humane and down to earth. The contemporary poverty reduction strategy as prepared by 'outsiders' still centres around 'subsistence thinking' of the experts. That the poor too are humans and they too have dreams for decent living like any of those outsiders is not reflected in the conceptualisation of the on-going PRSP process. Apparently the issue of poverty is being narrowly conceptualized in terms of pulling a section of the people out of the poverty trap by providing them a 'dollar a day' type subsistence kit. Surely, there are millions others who may be tomorrow's poor and have the potential of joining the rank subsequently. While present initiative is slightly better than the conventional one as experts are at least getting out of their ivory tower, yet the attempt does not fully capture the reality of the disadvantaged. May be, the new attempt at capturing poverty under PRSP exercise will be able to reveal a few more dimensions of poverty, but not necessarily all its dimensions, particularly those related to voicelessness, powerlessness, physical in security, lack of self-respect and unfreedom related to socio-cultural and many other deprivations including lack of creative options. If these multi-dimensional elements of poverty have to be captured, experts and policy makers alike need to step backward and allow the people to come to the centre-stage to define their versions of poverty. The very struggle for survival through which the poor undergo everyday can be a case study of myriad-minded coping strategy of poverty reduction. Captturing people's perception is not so difficult as one many think. Many participation experts including the ones working with the World Bank have been revealing the difficult and unknown terrains of poverty reduction.

As I indicated earlier I have been involved in an on-going participatory research on budget-making process from the perspective of the poor for many years and I must say the knowledge of the poor about poverty is enormous. To them poverty is much more than lack of income. It includes lack of productive asset, housing, means to face crisis, having to accept demeaning works, lack of even a means to decently bury their dead. One could perhaps add a few more things (ala Anisur Rahman): lack of more serious medical care, old age security, entitlement for women to safe movement, means to buy law and order security and justice etc. The poor are also not in a position to enjoy their lives 'creatively and aesthetically.' So any attempt at defining poverty should include lack of both subsistence and human requirements.

The on-going forces of globalization have been putting additional pressure on the living condition of the poor. This too deserves to be included in the definition of the poor. Besides, it needs to be recognised that the poor too are part of the civilization and they, therefore, deserve to be treated as human beings with flesh and mind. They two have the right to participate in the process marketisation which globalization has been unleashing.

The poverty reduction strategy if prepared around above premise, it will certainly gain wider acceptability of the citizens of the country. The way forward would then be to know the details of the realities of the poor their priorities and creative options for freedom out of abyssal poverty. This strategy seen through the eyes of the poor will surely have the potential of bringing notable changes in their lives. Based on various participatory assessment reports it can now be argued that fighting poverty is a serious business and hence can not be left to the state alone which has been largely ineffective in reaching the poor. The role of NGOs and many other civil society organization involved in strengthening social capital polus socially committed private sector should as well be made integral to this strategy. In more concrete terms the poverty reduction strategy besides addressing the strategic issues of governance, should have atleast the following nuts and bolts:

  • Build the strategy around realities of the poor focussing on their formal and informal livelihoods, health protection, infrastructure development, literacy and skill, how to cope with lawlessness, corruption, accountable local government, fiscal decentralization, public access to information including innovative ICT.

  • Invest in organizational capacity of the poor so that they can bargain with the rich, the administrative elites, negotiate with the market agents, can develop stronger coalition with other organizations.

  • Strengthen community driven approaches including stronger local government, community groups with authority and control over decision-making.

  • Develop partnership with NGOs, civil society organizations, the media and even the private sector.

  • Support development entrepreneurs.

  • Help change mindsets of the service provider and their leaders regarding pervasive gender-inequality, environmental degradation and the quality of services they provide to the citizens.

  • Continue to support pro-poor growth process, focussing particularly on agriculture and small and medium sized enterprises.

  • Ensure economic security of the poor first and then encourage social mobilization.

Bangladesh is quite lucky in terms of a number of civil society initiatives to face the challenges and seize the opportunities of development. Thousands of non-profit organizations have been active in poverty reduction activities. Their range of innovations (e.g. in the areas of group formation, technology, non-formal education, water selling, legal aid) is enormous. The media too has been very pro-active on the issue of poverty eradication. At least two task force reports are now available on how poverty can be eradicated. Professor Rehman Sobhan was instrumental in constituting these task forces, one in the early 9os and the other very recently. The policy suggestions of these task force should ideally constitute the starting points for any strategy on poverty reduction. Hopefully the on-going PRSP strategy has been using these two reports gainfully.

Finally, the issue of poverty cannot be isolated from the overall approach of designing a comprehensive home-grown development agenda for the country. Unless the growth process is truly participative, the macro-economic indicators are stable and the political commitment across the board for social justice is total, fighting poverty may continue to be illusive despite huge noises in Paris or in Dhaka. Afterall, poverty of values is no less significant than the poverty itself in the bizarre political and economic ground realities of Bangladesh. It is quite painful for many of us to talk about a strategy for poverty reduction even after thirty years of liberation of Bangladesh. Poverty should have been identified as the number one development challenge long back and then confronted squirely. The ordinary people of Bangladesh whole heatedly participated in the war of liberation in 1971 not only for curbing a separate physical landmass but wanted to free themselves from the chains of poverty and social injustices. But after all these years can we now claim that those chains have been atleast loosened if not broken?

Rahman is an economist and environmental activist.
Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, March 25, 2002

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