Post 2015: What do policymakers know about poverty?


Joanna Wheeler and Danny Burns

Whose knowledge should really count in decisions about the future of development?  As members of the post-2015 UN high-level panel meet today for the first time, we want to know how they can be sure the decisions they take will be informed by the perspectives of those most affected by poverty.

For policymakers to really understand the complexities of lives led by people who are marginalised and living in poverty, they need to experience in a real way the choices that people have to make on a day-to-day basis. For example: what are the risks a woman living in a city slum has to negotiate to go to the toilet? Why can’t people with disabilities access their local health clinic? Why do some children in rural Uganda have to give up school to get clean water? What happens when your village is swept into the sea by coastal erosion and all of the land behind it is owned by someone else?

The high-level panel, which is co-chaired by Liberia, Indonesia and the UK, will make its decisions based on how members of the panel understand poverty and its causes. And yet, the experience of poverty is very distant from the lived realities of most of the members of the panel.  There are many ‘experts’ in development, but those that have the most important knowledge, rooted in direct experience, are the people that live in poverty themselves. Yet these people are systematically left out of decisions on global development structures.

To help address this, the Participate initiative (a global collaboration between the Institute of Development Studies and Beyond 2015) invites members of the high-level panel and senior decision makers in the post-2015 process to join our programme of ‘immersions’ in order to come face to face with these realities, and to enter into dialogue with members of communities living in extreme poverty.

An ‘immersion’ involves living, eating, sleeping and working with people living in poverty for a number of days and nights. The process gives decision makers the opportunity to relate to people on a personal level and to learn firsthand from their experiences. It can offer unexpected insights into the realities faced by communities living in poverty.

Participate will also organise a ‘ground level-panel’ which, like the high-level panel, will deliberate on the future of development. The participants will be dwellers of city slums, pastoralists who walk with cattle across bush lands in search of water, refugees from war, and small farmers whose crops have failed in response to climate change. Mirroring the high-level panel, the ground-level panel will produce their own recommendations.

The Participate initiative is working with civil society organisations and NGOs to draw together an extensive body of participatory research in more than 25 countries, to ensure that a future development framework reflects the priorities of those directly affected by poverty and injustice. We hope to create spaces for people living in extreme poverty to pose their own questions and share perspectives based on their own experiences about how sustainable change is possible.

As Co-Directors of this initiative we are excited about supporting a different way of engaging with global policymaking processes. We’ve launched Participate in response to substantial criticism of the current Millennium Development Goals (MDG) framework – that the process of designing and implementing it was driven by a development elite, and as a result had very limited ownership, failed to engage with crucial issues, and adopted an approach that often further marginalised very poor people. By ensuring marginalised people are a central part of the post-2015 process, we hope to ensure a new framework doesn’t make the same mistakes again.

Joanna Wheeler is a Research Fellow and Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. 

Read other recent blog posts from Danny Burns:

Prices that bounce


Naomi Hossain

I’m just back from South Kalimantan, part of Indonesian Borneo, where the idea that future food prices are likely to be jump even higher because of extreme weather events feels very real. Climate, energy, food and global economic crisis all feature in an alarming combination of volatilities. In the Banjarese community where IDS partners SMERU have been researching the social impacts of crisis since 2009, most people are rubber tappers. The past year has been particularly up-and-down, mainly down, even by the elastic standards of rubber producers.

We went to see one family, where the newly-single mother and household head – call her Siti – panicked when she saw us. ‘I’ve already paid’, she said. ‘I’ve paid for this month’. She thought we were debt collectors and was already behind on her first (I suspect also last) installment for her new motorbike, easily the most popular means of getting about Indonesia. Siti needed it because she had recently shed her violent unfaithful husband, and was looking after four children on the wages of a rubber tapper(her working hours are 2am till 10am, when the rubber is fresh and the weather is cool).

The wages of rubber tappers are well down on last year, mostly because rubber prices have been affected by the double dip in the global economy, but partly due to the unusually dry season. Sofian told us he and his wife Fatiyah were earning 2.25 million (about US$ 240) rupiah per month this time last year; now they were getting 600,000 to 700,000 (US$ 63-73), depending on quality and quantity of their rubber. That is for two adults putting in a shared 7 hour shift between 4 and 9am, 6 days a week.

But as the price of rubber has sunk, the price of most food has steadily risen. People still eat rice in the same quantities or mix it with noodles – work is physical and they need the energy – but have cut down on fish. And, presumably because of the soybean crisis in the US, the high protein staple of the poor, tempe (soybean cake), has doubled in price. As the motorcycle grocer explained as he sped off, the price is the same, so he halves quantities.

Focus groups told another story. Their main problem, they tell us, is water. Some people think it is deforestation that has caused the water problems in Kalimantan, but in this part of Banjar, people point to the growing presence of the coal-mines. A popular community development  programme (PNPM) devised a water pump project in an area with a water source, only to find that by the time it was installed, the water had disappeared, sunk without a trace, as the coal-mines dug deeper into the earth. The mining company has bought up lots of local land, at cheap but still attractive prices, so many local people no longer farm their own land. But they are also too poor to get the education they need to work for the mining companies as drivers or mechanics. It’s all lose-lose here, at least until the rubber price picks up or food prices go down again.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:

Remembering the Poll Tax: lessons for contemporary political movements


Danny BurnsImage

You may be interested in a programme that I participated in, on the resistance to the Poll Tax in the UK. It was broadcast on Sunday 2nd September 2012, is repeated on Friday and is downloadable as a BBC iPlayer podcast. The program is one of the Reunion series on BBC Radio 4 where protagonists in contemporary historical events are brought together to discuss those events some decades later.

What was striking to me in recounting these events of 22 years ago is how few young people have ever heard of the Poll Tax.  Yet the anti-Poll Tax campaign was the biggest civil disobedience movement in UK history. 10 million people refused to pay the tax, there were riots across the country and a government was brought down.  This people’s movement succeeded against opposition from every major political party.

It is crucial that we don’t forget our political history. There are important lessons for the contemporary political resistance movements that are emerging across the world today, and we have a responsibility to pass on this knowledge to the generations that follow.

For those that have a deeper interest in this movement, I published a book in 1992 ‘Poll Tax Rebellion’, which is still available through Amazon.

Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. 

Read other recent blog posts from Danny Burns: