I’ve just finished reading From Poverty to Power*, Duncan Green’s recent book, whose tagline gives you the book’s big idea:
How active citizens and effective states can change the world
Expounding the theme he regularly returns to, he says, “states that can guarantee security and the rule of law, and can design and implement an effective strategy to ensure inclusive economic growth” are essential for driving and managing the development process and “people working together to determine the course of their own lives, fighting for rights and justice in their own societies, are critical in holding states, private companies and others to account.”
It’s a chunky book, aiming at a pretty comprehensive look at different dimensions of power and their interactions at different levels to either advance or inhibit the capacities and opportunities of the poor. It is full of argument and insight (as well as stories of outrage and hope), and is well worth a read.
What’s great about the book is that it takes power (and powerlessness) seriously in all its dimensions (personal, inter-personal, social, political, financial) as it relates to human development and the protection and promotion of human rights. It argues that the redistribution of economic, social and political power, or the creation of new centres and forms of power among the poor, are vital for overcoming inequality, tackling poverty, defending human rights, and calling for –and supporting – responsive, accountable and effective governance.
Looking at national and international policy issues, and following the work of economists like Ha-Joon Chang and Dani Rodrik (and incorporating environmental and gender concerns), the book argues that “economic growth is everything” approaches are not sufficient to tackle poverty and inequality, and that countries (particularly poorer, developing ones) need to retain “policy space” and flexibility when dealing with the trans-national corporations of developed countries, or the architecture of global trade and finance (such as the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and World Bank). The work isn’t geared to bashing these institutions, and it certainly isn’t anti-market or anti-business. On many occasions it acknowledges the vital role that small and medium, and even large, enterprises can play in creating wealth, generating employment and opportunity, contributing to gender empowerment, and driving economic growth and development. But it takes the rights and flourishing of the poorest as the benchmark for assessing policy, or the behaviour of an institution, or set of governance arrangements – a stance that leads to sharp critique of corporations, international financial institutions, and governments at times.
Along the way, there is plenty of material to fuel your ire, or fire some arguments – for example the discussion of the behaviour of pharmaceutical companies in relation to Africa’s AIDS crisis, the slow-burning tragedy of the crippling debt burden still borne by the world’s poorest people, or the “rigged rules and double standards” of WTO agreements. There are plenty of “killer facts” as well sprinkled throughout to bring out the sharp edge of the topic under discussion.
I really only have one complaint , which is that the book’s strength seems also to be its weakness. Examining so many different forms of power and tools of empowerment (education, citizenship, land and property rights, social protection, cash transfers,…), so many forms of risk and vulnerability faced by the poor (finance, health, food security, conflict and violence, climate change…) and examining stories at so many different levels (the personal, local, national and international) means that, inevitably, many of the sections are really only introductions to the topic at hand, with not quite enough detail to do justice to the issue (though the treatment of issues like the international trade and finance systems, or community organising for political change are very good introductions). Nor do they properly back up the few prescriptive passages in the book. For example, it’s not clear to me what would actually be done differently if we heeded Green’s call for a “new economics for the 21st Century”. He’s probably right about the ascendency of a certain, very blunt, form of neo-classical economics in political decision making. But when he says,
Decision-makers will always need to consult, identify trade-offs, and agree priorities: such discussions are the stuff of politics, which in the end should be served, and not ruled, by economics
I really can’t imagine that decision-makers currently do otherwise.
Related to this is that the kaleidoscopic view of power explored here ends up reading, at certain points, like a change of topic every 20 pages or so, which gets a bit tiring when read at one sitting (or, in a 6-hour stretch in an overcrowded minivan winding its way through the hills of Far Western Nepal!). It would probably have been better to dip in and out of several of the sections according to interest and my ability to concentrate.
Oh, and a minor gripe is that Oxfam’s marketing team seem to have been allowed pretty free play in the text. I have no issue at all with sentences like, “Oxfam has learned that…” or “In the experience of Oxfam’s partners…” The book, after all, was written by Oxfam GB’s head of research and these lessons confirmed by personal and organisational experience provide much of the book’s strength and authenticity.
What started to irk me a little though was that whenever the words “International Non-Governmental Organisations…” cropped up, they were almost invariably followed by the words “… like Oxfam.” Now I know Oxfam is an example of one kind of INGO, and it’s probably worth pointing out once or twice on the way through, but surely not every time. First, it gets tedious and, second, you’d have a slightly warped view of INGOs if every time you thought about them you had to think of Oxfam (whose work, and staff, I really do like and admire).
Funnily enough, though, the words “like Oxfam” didn’t make it into the sentence that reads:
While activists from many developing countries appreciate the support that their organisations receive from INGOs, they often complain that INGOs are domineering…
But that’s definitely enough snark. You can see video of Duncan Green discussing the book here.
* From Poverty to Power is also the name of his excellent blog