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Anti-poverty programs show dubious success

by Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Global leaders have touted the apparent success of achieving in 2010 — well ahead of the 2015 target — the Millennium Development Goal of halving the share of people who were living below the poverty line in 1990. But amid enduring poverty, rising inequality and lackluster growth in many developing countries, the success of past antipoverty policies and programs appears dubious.

In fact, outside of East Asia, progress has been modest, with the situation worsening in some countries and regions — despite several economic-growth spurts, sustained expansion in some large developing countries, and public commitments by the international community to the 2000 Millennium Declaration, which led to the MDGs.

This mixed record calls into question the efficacy of conventional poverty-reduction policies, often identified with the Washington Consensus, which transformed the discourse on poverty in the 1980s.

Washington Consensus reforms — including macroeconomic stabilization (defined as low-single-digit inflation) and market liberalization — were supposed to reduce poverty by accelerating economic growth. But little attention was paid to poverty’s structural causes, such as inequality of assets and opportunities, or the unequal distributional consequences of growth. And, because unskilled workers tend to lose their jobs first in economic downturns, while employment generally lags behind output recovery, reduced public investment in health, education and other social programs ultimately increased the vulnerability of the poor.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the fallout from the global economic crisis that erupted in 2008 — the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s — has prompted experts, policymakers and the international financial institutions to rethink poverty. Many are rejecting once-dominant perspectives on poverty and deprivation, warning that they lead to ineffective policy prescriptions.

For example, the United Nations’ “Report on the World Social Situation: Rethinking Poverty” and its companion book “Poor Poverty: The Impoverishment of Analysis, Measurement, and Policies” have sought to advance the debate on poverty by examining the conventional policy framework and assessing popular poverty-reduction programs.

They affirm the need for a shift away from the fundamentalist free-market thinking that has dominated poverty-reduction strategies in recent decades toward context-sensitive measures to promote sustainable development and equality. Indeed, these reports challenge the prevailing approach, which has left more than 1 billion people living below the poverty line (defined as the purchasing-power-parity equivalent of $1.25 per day in 2005), and has failed to prevent economic growth from stalling in most countries.

Meanwhile, inequality has increased worldwide — even in countries that have experienced rapid economic expansion, notably China and India. While growth is usually needed for poverty reduction, it does not necessarily translate into job creation, as many countries’ recent record of jobless or job-poor growth demonstrates.

The U.N. encourages governments to assume a more proactive development role, which would entail an integrated policymaking approach aimed at promoting structural change while reducing inequality, vulnerability and economic insecurity. Growth must become more stable, with a consistently countercyclical macroeconomic policy stance, prudent capital-account management, and greater resilience to external shocks.

Generally economies that have succeeded in terms of both economic growth and poverty reduction over the last three decades have done so by adopting pragmatic, heterodox policies. Often invoking investor- and market-friendly language, they have generally encouraged private investment, especially in desired economic activities, such as those that create more job opportunities or offer increasing returns to scale.

But aid conditionality and treaty commitments have significantly constrained policymaking in most developing countries, especially the poorest. In particular, slow growth and revenue losses, owing to economic liberalization programs, have reduced the scope for fiscal policy, with serious consequences for poverty and destitution. This trend must be reversed.

Moreover, while the programs that most donors like — such as micro-credit, formalization of land titles, and governance reforms — have sometimes helped to ameliorate the conditions facing the poor, they have not reduced poverty significantly. Leaders must consider, design and implement pragmatic and innovative alternatives, rather than continue to rely on ineffective policies and programs.

In recent decades, social policies have increasingly involved some form of means testing of eligible beneficiaries, ostensibly to enhance cost effectiveness. But in general, universal social policies have been much more effective and politically sustainable, while policies targeting the poor, or the “poorest of the poor,” have often been costly and neglectful of many of those in need.

The right to social security enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires universal social protection to ensure the well-being of all, including people living in poverty and those at risk of poverty. Social policy, provisioning and protection must therefore be integral to development and poverty-reduction strategies.

In most countries, a basic social-protection floor — which can help countries to mitigate the negative effects of shocks and prevent people from falling deeper into poverty — is affordable. However, low-income and least-developed countries need assistance in raising the floor to more acceptable levels.

To address global poverty effectively, world leaders must pursue poverty-reduction policies that support inclusive, sustainable economic growth and development — in turn increasing the fiscal resources available for social spending. Only when all citizens benefit from economic development can leaders devoted to poverty reduction claim success.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram is assistant director general at the Economic and Social Development Department of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. © 2013 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)