Thursday, 27 September 2012

The technocratisation of poverty analysis and policy

Professor Allister McGregor

Welcome to the new blog of the Poverty and Vulnerability team at the Institute of Development Studies. The title of the blog captures two aspects of our work on poverty and vulnerability: That poverty is political and that we need the right metrics on which to base policy to be effective in reducing poverty and vulnerability.

So, here is my starting point on the relationship between politics and metrics for our understanding of and action on poverty.

The indignity of poverty

One of the biggest sources of failure for international development policy in the 20th century has been the technocratisation of poverty analysis and policy. The reduction of poor men, women and children to sets of numbers to be moved above or below a line allows politicians, policy makers and analysts alike to dehumanise poverty.

When I worked briefly for Oxfam, back in the day, we used to debate the rights and wrongs of using images of starving children as a means of motivating and fundraising. It was argued by some that these pictures offended the dignity of the victims and that it was morally unsound to use them.

Years later, I come to the conclusion that this is baloney. Poverty is about indignity; it is about avoidable harm coming to men, women and children in many shapes and forms. I am now of the view that people should see the images and that they should regularly be reminded of the real-life suffering and pain that lies behind poverty numbers.

The politics of poverty

The technocratisation of poverty analysis has also sought to take the politics out of poverty. In doing so it advances the illusion that there can be a technocratic solution to global poverty problems. But there can be no technocratic solution.

Poverty exists and persists because of the relationships poor people have with others (for example, with wealthy people in their locality, with traders in globalised markets, and with their relationships, by proxy, to politicians in wealthy countries). These relationships result in a maldistribution of material benefits, of opportunities and of power.

Poverty will not be reduced until those relationships change. Systematically changing the relationships of poverty away from the status quo will involve sacrifice for those who currently benefit from those relationships and it certainly is political.

That said there is some recognition of the need for change. This is illustrated by the Final Report of the Bellagio Initiative where a global process of deliberation highlighted the need for fundamental changes not just in how we measure development but in how we conceive of it and how international development policy issues are prioritised.

This is but one part of a broader movement for profound change at this time.  I am preparing to go off to the 4th OECD World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge, and Policy “Measuring Well-Being and Fostering the Progress of Societies”. My sincere hope is that this OECD initiative does not spiral into another sympathetic but toothless technocratic indulgence. After all, the metrics of poverty are political.