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. 

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No gong for Cameron’s Hunger Summit


Naomi Hossain

Two global food crises in 5 years is a misfortune; three looks like carelessness. So yesterday’s Global Hunger Summit was a golden opportunity to tackle the causes of global food price volatility – without doubt the single greatest threat to nutrition in the 21st century, and with equally little doubt, the result of chronically malfunctioning food markets exacerbating climate change (see e.g. what the clever people at the New England Complex Systems Institute say about the 2012 food crisis).

So what did the Global Hunger Summit propose to do about the malfunctioning markets and commodity speculation behind upward fluctuating food prices? Not a lot. The joint statement the PM issued with the Brazilian VP Michel Temer acknowledged climate change, with an emphasis on science-y solutions like drought resistant crops and ‘evidence-based’ policies. But while nobody expected a full-on attack on profit-motivated food commodity speculation, there was a pat on the back for food markets, with a promise to connect poor people to them better. That must have gone down pretty well with the global food giant Cargill – which was already feeling ‘optimistic’ earlier this month as the US drought increased global food price volatility and thereby its revenue prospects.

Putting hunger high on the global policy agenda should be a good thing, but the Summit failed to connect with the concerns of poor people whose experiences are being tracked in our IDS-Oxfam Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project (funded by DFID, Irish Aid, and Oxfam GB). Our fourth round of research is finding that many poor people are not so much ‘hungry’ as they are fed up of struggling to feed families in the face of an apparently endless series of steep price rises. Higher living costs mean more women entering poorly paid and over-crowded job markets, scrabbling around for bargains, scrounging and ‘borrowing’. In our Indonesian sites, working women say it is now cheaper to eat in the local warung than to cook at home; nobody knows what that means for children’s nutrition, but it won’t be good. And in the Bangladesh sites, women say men find bargaining for cheap food onerous and shameful, so they have to do the food shopping, too. In short, the global food crisis is a crisis of the global care economy: no number of clever evidence-based nutritional supplements will nourish babies whose mothers are working ever harder to care for their families.

What we really needed from the Summit was less charity and science and more solidarity with food justice campaigns. The point is to tackle the causes of food price volatility. And it would have been there, too, that the elusive political will to act on nutrition could be tapped: governments find the social unrest that comes with uncontrollable global food price volatility extremely scary; by contrast, they find the spectre of under-nourished babies quite easy to live with.

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:

Why predict a riot?


Naomi Hossain

Like millions of Indonesians, I watched the protests against the fuel subsidy cut as it was debated in Parliament last week. They were at it (debating, not protesting) into the wee hours; in the end, the protests were big and ugly enough for the opposition and coalition partners to hold the ruling party to ransom. They fudged it, agreeing that if the global fuel price goes up a lot, they will act. Result? Unruly politics – 1; responsible fiscal policy – 0.

Technocrats and policy types all agree the fuel subsidy is A Bad Thing. It cost US$18bn last year- more than half of spending on education (US$£32bn). The Iran situation will increase global fuel prices. 60-70% of the fuel subsidy benefits the richest 40% of Indonesians. But because fuel subsidies are so economically irrational, technocrats and policy types fail to analyse the political responses and easily discount the protests. Pure party politics, they say; protestors are cheaply hired; an easy populist win for parties against the cut; there weren’t many protestors really etc.

On the other side, protestors, spokespersons and even the occasional real person were heard arguing that no, increasing fuel prices by 33% will be bad for ordinary people. For one thing, the price of food in this island nation depends directly on fuel and sharp rises in the basic costs of living are toughest for people on low incomes. On cue, food prices shot up in anticipation.

To an outsider, there is a mesmerising balletic quality to the repertoire of fuel price protests. There seem to be clearly defined moves, honed over the decades. Some responses are no doubt learned from when the mighty Suharto lost power after the 1998 fuel price rise protests. There were protests in 2002, 2005, and 2008 against fuel subsidy cuts. The ritualistic quality helps the policy wonks dismiss this as ‘mere politics’; the spectacle seems not entirely real. The policewomen doing their cute dance to calm the crowds in Surabaya illustrates how domesticated– how subversively ruly (as Alex Shankland says) these protests are. Even then, there is an edge of danger: to contain Tuesday’s protests took 14,000 police and 8,000 army.

I doubt that fuel price protests are just the shadow-puppetry of elite politics. Fuel price rises unite the concerns of the poorest with that far more politically important and better organised class – the numerous nearly-poor, the group recently described by Martin Ravallion as ‘bunched up just above the poverty line’. This group is not the target of the sophisticated proxy-means tested social protection schemes so beloved of the international technocracy. But the nearly-poor have excellent reasons to be annoyed that their protection against inflation is being removed, as industrial workers in Bekasi (itself the site of protests earlier this year) told us during the price spike last year.

So here it seems is the recipe for a successful bout of unruly politics:

• A history of having worked
• Some familiar routines and rituals (Charles Tilly’s ‘repertoire’)
• A popular, broad-based concern to protect basic rights
• Actors willing to politicise the issue to their own advantage
• Authorities sensitive about unpopularity (general elections in 2014).

Clearly the technocrats need a much sharper political analysis if they are ever going to make this reform work. Conclusion? Political analysis – 1; technical correctness – 0.

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