The many hidden faces of extreme poverty

In: Anika Altaf, The many hidden faces of extreme poverty. Leiden: African Studies Centre (2019) pp. 8-12 (Preface)

Development is not about countries, but about people, all people. This had been understood right from the outset in development policy making, but efforts to design development strategies were based on the assumption that the development of a country was a precondition for improving the lot of the people. When in a later stage policy makers came to the conclusion that increasing a country’s prosperity was neither a necessary nor a sufficient means to increase people’s welfare, they still considered this a possible means to achieve this.

Gradually the attention shifted into another direction: from increasing people’s welfare to decreasing poverty. In the nineteen seventies this led to a new priority: providing in the basic needs of people, in particular poor people. However, in the eighties counties had to adjust their economies in order to counter the effects of a world economic recession. Adjustment took place by cutting investment in agriculture, education, health, drinking water, sanitation, housing and other expenditure which is essential in a battle against poverty.

In the nineties the pendulum swung back again. The crisis was over and the Cold War had come to an end. Attention again could be given to poverty reduction. This led to new policies with consequences for the poor: social protection, securing women’s rights, fighting climate change, halting biodiversity decline, stemming environmental pollution and preserving nature. Poverty received renewed attention in development theory as well as in social and political sciences. New concepts were developed, such as human development and human security and the responsibility to protect vulnerable people which have been caught in conflict ridden processes. Researchers in different disciplines developed new approaches to study poverty, such as a capability approach (A. K. Sen), a participatory approach (Robert Chambers) and other approaches as described by Anika Altaf, in the first chapters of this book. 

Around the turn of the century the renewed attention culminated in the Millennium Declaration and the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals.  The setting of goals was important, because while many of the world’s people had experienced economic growth and progress, many others had stayed behind. They had been deprived of opportunities to share and enjoy the fruits of Post-World War II economic growth; many even had been excluded from reaping those fruits. The Millennium Declaration demonstrated an awareness that the persistence of poverty amidst ever-increasing global wealth was not only the result of erroneous policies, based on the assumption that in the end, despite temporary lags, everybody would benefit from growth. The exclusion of people was to a large extent due to systemic failures, more than policy failures. Economic and political systems of countries were inherently flawed, unjust, biased against unprivileged people, who are powerless and poor. Poor people were bound to remain poor because they had been denied fair access to the means necessary to empower themselves: capital, information, knowledge, credit, technology, water, a fertile soil, affordable energy, a safe habitat, and other necessary resources.

These insights led to the adoption of seven Millennium Development Goals, selected in order to cut world poverty in half, in a period of fifteen years. In the Declaration poverty was defined in different terms:  not only insufficient income, but also, for instance, unemployment, hunger and malnutrition, inadequate access to drinking water and primary education, child mortality and maternal health. Other dimensions and indicators of poverty could have been selected, but the set as a whole did offer a truthful picture of people’s welfare, its level, composition and shortcomings. 

Cutting world poverty in half was quite an ambitious goal. However, if the ambition would not go beyond the first half of the world’s poor, permanently disregarding the other half, this would have been disappointing. However, the Millennium Declaration clearly stated that the ultimate aim was to ‘free the entire human race from want’. This could only be read as an aim to fully eradicate poverty. Halving poverty within a period of fifteen years had never before been accomplished.

During the fifteen years allotted to these goals they have not been met, anyway not by all countries and not fully. However, greater progress has been achieved than sceptics had expected. For that reason for the period after 2015 new goals were adopted, broader and more ambitious: the Sustainable Development Goals. Safeguarding the natural environment of all people on the earth is a key objective. To reach that objective would require inclusion of people which run the risk of being marginalized or even excluded, the poor and very poor. However, goal setting is not a numbers game. Poverty has many dimensions. A person can be poor in absolute terms, but also relatively (in comparison to others), or in terms of relations with other people, but also mentally, in his or her own mind. So, assessments of poverty should focus on the quality of the process of development, a person’s subjective experience of progress, and his or her personal perception of fully belonging to a society, rather than quantitative and measurable indicators.

World poverty may have been brought down with somewhat less than 50%, the goal which had been set in the Millennium Declaration, lifting the other half of the world’s poor out of unworthy and inhuman circumstances would require a different approach. There are reasons why people belong to a poorer second half of the world’s poor and why they can be reached less easily, or not at all, with the help of traditional policy instruments. Many of those people cannot be reached with the help of market instruments, because they don’t have access to the market. Many cannot be reached with the help of public instruments of the state either, because state authorities are not interested, or have a bias against the communities to which these people belong. From their side people may have completely lost confidence in public authorities, and in supposedly democratic procedures. They may have different values or beliefs. They may be held in subjection to social control. They may be victims of oppression, discrimination, conflict or war. They may be more vulnerable, living in the worst parts of the earth: dry, polluted, unhealthy, and prone to floods, hurricanes or earthquakes. They may be ignorant or, rather, prefer to live inspired by a different wisdom.

So, policies with the aim of cutting the other half of poverty to nil, poverty should be based on a thorough analysis of the origins and causes of poverty of specific groups of people: different regions within a country; distinct age groups of men and women; specific cultural, religious, ethnic or national minorities, tribes and indigenous groups; special categories of the rural population and of urban slums, and so on. The poorer people are, the farther they are beyond the reach of the market and the state; the more they have been excluded - or feel excluded - by both the market and the state, the greater the need to tailor anti-poverty policies to the specific circumstances in which they live. 

The other half: they are the extreme poor people mentioned in this book. They have, as argued by Anika Altaf, the author of the book, many different faces, mostly hidden. They have difficulty participating in the society to which they belong, often have been excluded from society, or feel excluded because other people label them as unworthy or inferior. Not seldom they have also been excluded from well-meant but wrongly focused development interventions.

As a policy maker in the seventies I had been involved in such interventions, including those meant to address basic human needs. Our aim was to reach out to “the poorest of the poor”, the jargon of those days. We were not naïve: we dismissed top down approaches, we held dear principles of bottom up development and local participation, we knew that fighting poverty implied fighting inequality, we were aware of cultural diversities and constraints and we understood that long-drawn poverty often resulted from colonial oppression by the same countries which were preaching the gospel of development. But maybe that because we understood all this and wanted to deal with all the intricacies concerned, we became naïve again: naïvely believing that it was really possible to fully do away with poverty.

Around ten years later I read a dissertation written by one of my colleagues, Brigitte Erler, who for many years had been active in the field of international development cooperation. The title of her book was Tödliche Hilfe. Bericht von meiner letzten Dienstreise in Sachen Entwicklungshilfe. (Freiburg, Dreisam Verlag, 1985)Her last official journey indeed, because her book was meant as a farewell, based on deep-seated feelings of disillusion. Many of her criticisms were well known. Most of those referred to abusing development aid in order to serve the interests of donor countries, rather than people in developing countries. I shared such criticism, but I had not been disillusioned by the practices which I had witnessed. However, I was struck by one of her arguments in particular: it is impossible to reach out to the poorest of the poor in a small village in the remote areas of Bangladesh, because in the same village there is always a small layer of somewhat less poor people. These somewhat less poor have more power than the extreme poor: economic power, political power and the power of the network to which they belong. They will always use their power, however small it is, to reap the fruits of progress, however small those may be, and to deny access to the extreme poor. This is unavoidable and for this reason development interventions from outside are bound to fail. So far Brigitte Erler.

I must confess that I have never found a convincing answer to this argument. I refused to be disillusioned myself, preferred to see this as a major challenge, worked even harder to do the right thing and sought ways and means to address a remaining twinge of conscience.  During the decades thereafter, designing, negotiating and implementing development interventions meant to lift people out of poverty and misery, I heard some success stories and witnessed quite a few disappointments. But I felt that I did not have the right to be disillusioned, because there was always another route which could be tried.

So, the lesson I drew was: do not give up, but intensify the efforts, challenge conventional wisdoms and study. Study and ask questions, accept counter arguments and criticism, and listen. Go to the field, meet poor people and do not shy away from meeting the poorest of them. Go, watch, listen, feel, smell, taste and meet.

That is what Anika Altaf has done, studying extreme poor people in a number of countries: Bangladesh, Benin and Ethiopia. She came home with new insights, enriching our common knowledge and paving the way for interventions which truly aim at inclusive development.


Jan Pronk

Preface to: Anika Altaf, The Many Hidden Faces of Extreme Poverty. Inclusion and exclusion of extreme poor people in development interventions in Bangladesh, Benin and Ethiopia. Leiden: African Studies Centre (2019)