A Few Steps Further

Preface to Vineetha Menon Alleviating Poverty, Delhi, 2005

Development is change that leads to progress. This definition, with the help of two elements only, applies to development processes in any society: at the local, national and global level. Whether there is change is not difficult to ascertain. Research may help to unravel the origins of change, the linkages, and the consequences. Research contributes to a better understanding of a process and may throw some light on what could be expected from the future, if the trend continues. All this can be studied rather objectively, also by students of a process which themselves did not participate.

Progress is another matter. Whether there is progress can only to a certain extent be revealed with the help of value free, objective research. Indicators of progress and comparisons of processes over time or between societies can help us to judge whether change has led to progress, stagnation or even regress, in absolute or relative terms. But ultimately it is only those people who take part in the process and who are the subject of change that can present this judgment.

Progress has many dimensions: material and non-material; physical and psychological; economic, social, cultural and political. Progress consists of facts and perceptions. Progress contains many trade offs: between material growth and a loss of social cohesion, for instance.
Progress for some may go hand in hand with a worsening of the situation for others. For this reason a description of a society’s development ought to consist at least of three rather than two elements: development is change that leads to progress to the benefit of ever more people.

There is progress in development when people are lifted out of poverty. This is a normative definition. But this normative statement is subjective as well. Only the agents of change, the subjects of a development process, the people within the society concerned are in a position to judge whether poverty is decreasing or increasing. There is much discussion in the literature on concepts such as income poverty and human poverty. People are considered to be poor if they live beneath a poverty line that, for purposes of international comparison, generally is considered to lie at the level of one dollar a day per capita. Human poverty is a broader concept, related to access to the means necessary to meet basic human needs: health, food, water, energy, housing, education and other essentials. All these elements can be measured. But here again people can be better off in terms of one element by sacrificing another. Girls fetch drinking water at such a distance that there is no time to go to school. Boys earn an income as child labourers, helping the family to survive. There are parents that can only guarantee the livelihood of the family – not slaughtering their last cattle, for instance – by selling a child. These are examples of so-called extreme poverty. But also at somewhat higher income levels there are trade offs. Employment in factories that pollute the environment or that are a hazard to the health of the workers. Higher yields in agriculture obtained by depleting water resources. The introduction of technologies that promise material growth but result in a distortion of traditional socio-economic and environmental equilibria.

Whether such processes of change result in less or more poverty depends on the weighing of the various elements. This can only be done by the people concerned, not by outsiders, by-standers, researchers not belonging to the community concerned, people belonging to a different culture, people that themselves would never have to make such existential choices. But, of course, such a judgement should be given by all people belonging to that community, not only the leaders, the more powerful persons, those who could steer a process in a direction whereby they themselves benefit, while others on balance loose. In such a situation researchers from outside can help to make the process more transparent, revealing the forces that play a role in the process, using values and criteria that are widely accepted.

The concept of poverty is even broader than this. In addition to the material elements that may be considered crucial for survival itself and essential to give a meaning to life beyond mere existence, there are elements related to the self-perception of people in relation to each other, to society, to nature, to the earth, to life and death. It is difficult to find a common denominator for these elements. It is more than culture. It is also more than psychology. It is certainly much more than religion. It is also more than tradition. Some call it non-material or spiritual. Others call it dignity. It is not something that is only important after that the material needs have been met. It is no luxury. For many people in all societies it is basic, so basic that growth in material welfare can be sacrificed in order not to loose dignity. So, it is human. Therefore it is a basic consideration in any description or judgement of a process of development, change, progress and poverty reduction. And here again, the judgement is to the people concerned. Considerations of dignity are personal or based on values cherished within the society they live in. They differ between societies and may change over time. They may determine the chances and limitations of economic and social change. They may alter themselves because of these changes.

Research on development and poverty has to take all this into account. The thought may arise that in a period of globalisation we could confine ourselves to studying world trends, the driving forces behind them, their inter-linkages and their consequences. After all, globalisation calls for ever more uniformity of norms, values, policies and yardsticks. This would be a mistake. The forces of globalisation may shape a future that for more and more people will be more and more uniform, but these forces do not affect the past and cannot change the realities of the present. The past and the present, for instance existing inequalities, determine to a very great extent the capacity of a society to develop and to grow out of poverty.

So, deepening the understanding of processes at world level and revealing global trends is at the national level is not sufficient if one is interested in questions concerning poverty. Neither is an analysis of processes at national level. Local communities differ from each other in many respects, which cannot be washed away by a process of globalisation. Each local community has its own history. Local communities differ geographically and in terms of their natural environment, ecosystem and resources. Each local community has its own specific distribution of power, wealth and income. People in different communities have different perceptions. They react differently to changes that affect them. Local structures can be overwhelmed by forces from outside, but the overwhelming itself will be perceived as development or involution, as progress or as a loss, as greater welfare or deeper poverty. That is why community specific studies of poverty are so important. The specificity of each local situation, the different opportunities and constraints of peoples livelihoods, the culture of each separate society and community within which people try to survive and give a meaning to their lives should be studied if one wants to understand the meaning of development and poverty as perceived by the people concerned.

That is the purpose of this book. It resulted from an exercise in research on development, on a Dutch initiative, but carried out completely by researchers from the countries and societies studied. They defined the subjects, they asked the questions, they chose the localities, they decided on the research method. The result is a series of case studies of local-level linkages and development processes with an impact on poverty. The introduction to the book speaks about the need to foster alternative modes of knowledge generation, based on an articulation of the rights, interests, needs and opinions of and by the poor themselves. The authors expect that their research can help us to move a few steps further in better understanding the multidimensional linkages and processes of poverty at the local level where conflicts of interests that keep alive poverty become very visible. A few steps further. That is not pretentious. But it is ambitious enough and the authors have been able to fulfil the expectations raised by expressing such an ambition.

Let me give some examples. The papers in this book enhance the insight in the relation between poverty and the conservation of local ecosystems. That conservation is necessary to maintain and improve the environmental resources of the poor. However, when carried out in the wrong way, even with the best intentions, it can lead to greater inequalities and thus to more poverty.

In order to meet such a challenge local institutions are necessary which are fully representative and participatory and which can countervail powers at the local level. Various papers in the book analyse their chances and limitations. Some of these institutions, rather than fulfilling this role, result in a strengthening of power differences and thus become a straight jacket for the poor and a barrier to development.

However, the poor are not only victims of change, but also agents in the process. They show resilience. And they have capabilities to strengthen their position. Quite a few papers in this book deal with the coping strategies of the poor: self help groups, networks, micro credit schemes, micro enterprise, education, skill upgrading, migration, awareness building and the political articulation of aspirations. Both opportunities as well as limitations of such actions are described, dependent on the specific circumstances of the community involved.

There is indeed a wide variation: in land tenure systems, between landless people, very small farmers and less small farmers, between farm and non-farm opportunities, between towns and villages, between age groups and in terms of gender. These and other differences and variations are touched upon in many of the papers presented in this book. That makes it a book rich of variety, enriching the insights of students of development. I hope that the Multi-Annual Multi-Disciplinary Research Programme of the Netherlands in co-operation with research institutes in developing countries will result in many more of these studies to help us a few steps further, again and again.

Jan Pronk

Preface to Vineetha Menon cs, Poverty Alleviation in the Developing World: Case Studies of Local-Level Linkages and Processes, Delhi 2005, Centre for Development Studies/ Rainbow Publishers Ltd, pp 11-16