Managing a National Poverty Reduction Policy: Who, What and How?

10 November 1999
Public event

Speakers:

David Booth, Overseas Development Institute
Catherine Howarth, New Policy Institute

Description

This event discussed the crucial importance of the national context; and the centrality of politics to poverty reduction.

  1. The third meeting in the series was led by David Booth of ODI, and Catherine Howarth of the New Policy Institute.
  2. David Booth spoke first. He began by stressing two of his main arguments: the crucial importance of the national context; and the centrality of politics to poverty reduction. These two themes were, moreover, intimately linked since politics is perhaps the single most important component of 'national context'.
  3. David set out a number of themes. National poverty reduction policies could not be taken for granted, even in very poor countries. 'Policy is what policy does'; ringing declarations are neither sufficient nor indeed necessary for action. Pro-poor policies are as much about effectiveness as priorities and resource allocation. Poverty reduction policies are now just beginning to be put in place in a few countries in Africa.
  4. The poor, he argued, have little influence and political coalitions do not follow socially redistributive lines, whether openly or by stealth. Yet one could find examples - e.g. Ghana - where genuine national poverty reduction agendas were emerging, as part of a constitution-making process.
  5. State effectiveness is generally low; key information for monitoring progress is lacking; and mechanisms for allocating resources according to outcomes barely exist. Yet again there was evidence that these problems were not insurmountable, with incentives for civil servants having a key role to play, supported by institutional arrangements for monitoring.
  6. David concluded by arguing that while incorporating the voices of the poor in particular, and involving civil society more generally both had a part to play, renewal of both the political process and the administrative structures was much more important.
  7. Catherine Howarth began by stressing that while she was going to subject the UK government's anti-poverty strategy to critical review, it was vital to recognise both the seriousness and indeed the practicality of the strategy that was now in place.
  8. That strategy, set out in the UK government's Opportunity for All could be viewed as the accretion of a whole series of policies and measures, of which many were not born originally to tackle poverty. It had also come about through a very centralised process, with an earlier proposal for a more participative approach being rejected by the government.
  9. One consequence of this approach is that the UK's anti-poverty strategy tends either to address issues that are firmly within central government's control (e.g. the tax and benefit system) or are at least subject to its diktat (e.g education).
  10. A second consequence is that the problems of poverty are seen to be very different from those which would emerge from a more participative approach. On the basis of the issues that had tended to predominate in local anti-poverty programmes in the UK, she suggested that especially debt, but also access to services (e.g. food, public transport) and quality of work would figure in an anti-poverty strategy developed in a more participative way. This in turn would then have forced a wider view of where the factors exacerbating poverty lay. At the moment, only financial services are recognised within the present strategy as playing a part.
  11. In conclusion, Catherine argued that the many of the Government's area-based initiatives, for example, education action zones, were built around a partnership approach, but at the local level. A full national anti-poverty strategy, she suggested, would have to extend this approach from the local to the national.
  12. In the discussion which followed, the debate centered on three themes:
  • The contrast between UK and southern anti-poverty strategies, with relative measures of poverty being used in the former and absolute measures in the latter. There was a discussion about whether it was true, or indeed wise, for the UK government to be working with a relative measure. It was also pointed out that the combination of a relative measure of poverty and the commitment to eliminate child poverty within 20 years would have enormous implications for income distribution in the UK.
  • Who, in the UK context, is central government; who, in other words is driving it and how big are the differences between different departments (e.g. Treasury, Department of Social Security and the Social Exclusion Unit in the Cabinet Office)? The debate noted the central role of the Treasury (finance ministry), with contributors seeing this variously as a sign of: the importance of a 'macro' approach in the UK; the institutional reform within state structures that had earlier been identified as a necessary condition for poverty reduction; the seriousness and practicality of the UK approach.
  • The role and importance of participation. The debate touched on various aspects of this: whether a participative approach and therefore a necessarily overt assignment of importance to poverty was consistent with getting elected in the first place; whether the importance of participation in the South was to do fundamentally with the limited legitimacy of the political process there, which would not apply in e.g. the UK; whether participation in the UK was ruled out above all else by the limited time that was usually available to design local initiatives; and whether the importance of participation was a consensus above all else of the donors.