The discourse on poverty is a complex one with multiple contestations and conflicting public narratives. Starting with a contested terrain in the 1970s, the neoliberal push for poverty alleviation got a shot in the arm with the disintegration of the USSR, fall of the Berlin Wall and ‘perceived’ prosperity in the free market economies.
By Raghava Krishna, Associate Dean for Academics at Rashtram
October 17th 2020 would usher the 27th anniversary of the declaration by the UN General Assembly via resolution 47/196 that marked this date as the ‘International day for eradication of poverty’.
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the Call to Action by Father Joseph Wresinski which inspired this observance of October 17 as the World Day for Overcoming Extreme Poverty.
“Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.” Father Joseph Wresinski.
There have been other, older voices, of course for the issue is not a new one, it is as old as the imperial impulse – John Ruskin’s work in 1860 titled, ‘Unto This Last’ is said to have inspired Gandhi’s call for ‘sarvodaya’ which also found an expression in Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya’s framing of ‘antyodhaya’.
The discourse on poverty is a complex one with multiple contestations and conflicting public narratives. Starting with a contested terrain in the 1970s, the neoliberal push for poverty alleviation got a shot in the arm with disintegration of the USSR, fall of the Berlin Wall and ‘perceived’ prosperity in the free market economies. Taking a moral high ground in the ‘flattened earth’ ontology, proponents of neoliberalism pushed poverty alleviation as the moral basis of the neo-liberal argument for free market trade, deregulation of financial markets and general retrenchment of the state from economy. Purveyors of this school of thought would often frame the argument for furthering markets in the moral language of ‘millions of people lifted out of poverty’ and project that narrative as the ‘fundamental’ consideration for any public policy.
Almost all of these celebratory accounts rely one way or another on the World Bank’s international poverty line (IPL), under which the number in extreme poverty fell from 1.895 billion in 1990 to 736 million in 2015, and thus from about 36 to 10 percent of the world’s population.
On the other hand, critics point out the vacuity and arbitrary nature of the conception (of IPL) and argue that not only has poverty not declined but that inequality has increased with erosion of social safety-nets and community networks further compounding the problem. They argue there is in fact nothing ‘neo’ about this brand of liberalism which generated inequality by design and that this is just a new stage of development of capitalism, particularly accelerated by the financialization of economy.
How then should we understand the truth of our collective moment at this time of history – Are we living through a period of poverty alleviation with the benefits of material progress and technology aided by markets reaching more people or are we living through an age of profound disillusionment and hypocrisy that neither factors the multi-dimensionality of poverty nor provides for an accurate framework to actually validate claims on this ‘wicked problem’ of poverty.
While a detailed examination of these is far beyond the scope of this blog piece, we can think of some of the markers to understand the ‘frames’ and research further. To begin with, we could explore:
- Does the market model of ‘economic development’ ignore the inter-generational and multi-dimensional elements of understanding and dealing with poverty?
- Is IPL a ‘just’ measure? – Does it represent the lived experience? – Does it capture the loss of agency when health, justice and education become costlier?
- Is inequality a necessary and an acceptable ‘trade-off’ for poverty alleviation? – Does the current state of market truly represent ‘value’ and are there workable redistribution mechanisms? – Is there really an elite capture of policy that prevents this arc from playing out?
- What is the language in which poverty is framed? – What does it reveal and what does it conceal? Do frames such as ‘War on poverty’, ‘Poverty eradication’ serve to hide the structural power elements that engender poverty in the first place?
- What are the disciplines that need to come together to develop a full rounded view of poverty? – Do we need to fundamentally recast the idea of ‘progress’ and ‘development’?
- How can the power of modern technology be leveraged towards alleviation of poverty? – We are also celebrating the ‘India digital day’. Do we have a coherent strategy and the institutional mechanisms to put technology in the service of poverty alleviation?
- Finally, if the market model is not addressing poverty alleviation – what are the alternatives? Is there a deeper, more fundamental crisis of meaning and belonging that public policy is currently not seized of or incapable of addressing?
These are not esoteric, academic questions. These would have profound implications for every public spirited individual who seeks and strives to work towards a better world. Development work can be lonely and unrewarding and often times, utterly belittling.
We need a new discourse on poverty that goes beyond the claims and contestations and gets to the root of causality. As the prevailing paradigms turn incoherent, we see earnest seekers turning towards civilizational knowledge systems that have sustained and nourished societies for thousands of years for a new and vital supply of philosophy.
The Indian civilization which has given the grand vision of not just poverty alleviation but ‘well-being’ of everyone in the world as expressed in the mangala mantra of ‘lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino-bhavaṁtu’ holds deep possibilities to provide direction to the efforts at overcoming these emergent crises of our times.