New Delhi: Duncan Green, a strategic adviser to UK-based charity Oxfam, spoke about his most recent book, From Poverty to Power, which provides a perspective on effective development practices from across the globe. He spoke in an interview about the critical importance of effective collaboration between governments and engaged citizens, and the ways the recent global shocks have changed the paradigm of development theory. Edited excerpts:
What’s new in the second edition of this book?
The first edition came out in 2008. The primary argument is that it’s the combination of active citizens and effective states that create development. That you need effective states to deal with GDP (gross domestic product) growth—which is essential to development—and active citizens, which fall under a wider sense of development—the freedom to be and to do, in the words of Amartya Sen. And that it’s that combination between active citizens and states which is really the cockpit of where development does or doesn’t happen.
I still think that’s true, but what we’ve seen since 2008 are some massive shocks. We’ve seen the financial shock, we’ve seen an enormous change in the behaviour of food prices, which is of crucial importance to poor families. You also see an enormous political shock in the form of the Arab Spring, and a slow motion shock in that climate change is happening far faster than we’ve expected or anyone anticipated.
When you put those things together, it leads to a different way of thinking about development, far more emphasis on creating a resilient system that can cope with these shocks without people’s lives going into a downward spiral, and that’s what a lot of the new material is about.
How does India figure in this dialogue on global development?
At the moment in India there’s a really interesting discussion on cash transfers. And about other forms of what we call social protection—a lot of people around the world are studying the NREGA (rural jobs-guarantee programme for the poor) as an example of what looks like a very cost-effective way of improving the resilience of poor families in rural areas. Cash transfers, I think India is learning form other areas like Brazil, where they have been very effective at getting kids into school and reducing urban poverty in particular. So you have a number of areas where people are looking at India, and a lot of ways that India can learn from others. Right to education, right to food—a lot of the rights based stuff people are very inspired by what’s been happening here.
What lessons would you like India’s leaders to draw from your book?
I think that India has got some parts of what the book sets out very well. There’s a clear tradition of active citizenship going back to (Mahatma) Gandhi and earlier, which is an inspiration to the rest of the world. My question would be the effective state part of the equation. So you’ve got half-hearted attempts at government reform. You’ve got a civil society movement, which, some of the time, actually seems to just think that the government is incompetent and corrupt and not worth working with.
And our experience in other countries is that development is most effective when you get a coalition of citizens’ movements, bits of effectiveness in the states and other players—emerging middle classes, private sector, faith groups. It’s when you have that constellation of players working together around a specific goal—like ending hunger, infant mortality, dealing with maternal mortality—you can get phenomenal progress.
My sense—and this is quite superficial—is that things are quite polarized in India. You have a protest movement around corruption but not a wider movement around actually making the state deliver the kind of things it needs to deliver in order to progress. So I think that it needs a bit of new thinking on all sides to really make that click.
I’ve been to countries such as South Korea and Malaysia where we’ve had extraordinary progress over the past decade. I think there’s a lot that can be learned from those examples. And in Latin America at the moment, most countries are reducing inequality through a combination of economic stability, social spending and social protection—things like cash transfers. So I know that India is big and there’s the tendency to feel that only what happens in India matters, but I think there’s a lot to learn from other countries too.
How have the recent shocks, such as the global financial crisis and fluctuating food prices, changed how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and states approach development challenges?
You have had 30 years of steadily falling food prices and steadily falling hunger numbers around the world. And in the beginning of the last decade, they went into reverse, and went into reverse big time in 2008. So suddenly food prices went though the roof across a number of commodities, and since then they’ve been very very volatile, going up and down and no one knows what is going to happen next.
We’ve seen a massive social impact. Families that spend 70-80% of their income on food are suddenly finding that their household economies are no longer viable. They either have to cut down on food, or reduce the the quality of food. And our research suggests that a lot of families are reducing the quality—they are cutting down on protein, eating more starch, and more boring food. Some governments have reacted well, in terms of scaling up existing social protection mechanism.
Food aid has not responded terribly well because it’s still trapped in this model of sending food physically from America or Europe to the country, and by the time it arrives, something has happened—it’s no longer relevant and it’s a very wasteful process, so we’re urging people to give money instead of food for food aid. There’s also a big debate on whether the government should be running bigger food reserves—that’s a controversial subject in India because of wastage but a lot of governments around the world have run down food reserves to such an extent that they’re very vulnerable to these sudden changes in prices; so the fluctuating food prices are changing a lot of issues around management of the food system.