Government Perspectives on Poverty Reduction in North and South

9 December 1999
Public event

Speakers:

Rachel Lomax - Permanent Secretary, DSS.
Barrie Ireton - Director-General Programmes,  DFID.

Description

The event discussed whether the differences between rich and poor countries were significant enough to invalidate a dialogue, and concluded that they were not.

  1. The last meeting in the series was a discussion on government perspectives on poverty reduction, in North and South. There were brief presentations by Rachel Lomax, Permanent Secretary, Department of Social Security, and Barrie Ireton, Director-General Programmes, DFID. However, most of the meeting was devoted to discussion, and it was held under Chatham House rules. Hence, the points below are not attribute.

  2. An initial presentation reminded the meeting that the objective of the series had been to explore comparisons, convergence, and connections between poverty debates and poverty policy in North and South. The agenda established in the first meeting had covered the vision for poverty reduction, the language used, entry points, actors and ownership. However, the discussion had ranged more widely. Key themes running through the series had included:

  • the relative advantages and disadvantages of social exclusion versus sustainable livelihood models for the analysis of poverty - the former being strong on processes of poverty creation, the latter contributing insights about the multiple income - earnings strategies of the poor, and also the importance of various kinds of "(natural, social etc)";

  • the value of participatory approaches, exemplified by the current World Bank exercise called "Voices of the Poor", which helped to generate a new and different agenda for poverty reduction - for example the higher profile now being given to issues of empowerment;
  • the need to tackle inequality, especially if poverty targets are defined in relative terms;
  • the politics of poverty reduction, particularly lessons from the UK experience, in which poverty reduction policies had to be managed from a political position which satisfied the non-poor.
In the following discussion, the meeting discussed whether the differences between rich and poor countries were significant enough to invalidate a dialogue, and concluded that they were not. Of course, it was vital to recognise the different context, particularly that the extent of poverty was less in the North, and the resources available much greater. Nevertheless, there were many similarities in how the poor understood poverty (for example the themes of empowerment, dignity and security were common to the poor in both North and South), and many lessons to learn about policy. One important theme noted at the beginning of the series had not really been explored, which was the extent to which poverty in both North and South could be explained by common features like globalisation. The politics of poverty reductions came in for some discussion. It was suggested that, in the UK, "there are no votes in poverty" (at least as a general topic, though there probably were votes in specific issues like child poverty). It was noted, however, that in developing countries, the political agenda might be different. In particular, the poor did not want (expensive) transfers, instead they wanted livelihood opportunities (which might be cheaper to provide). It was also emphasised that in many countries, including Continental Europe, ideas of social solidarity made it much easier than in the UK to put poverty issues on the agenda. In this connection, the distinction between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor was unhelpful, wherever it occurred. The issue of redistribution came in for some discussion. The high gini coefficients prevalent in much of the developing world were noted, as was the impediment this posed to the achievement of poverty reduction targets. The gini coefficient was also relatively high in the UK, and redistribution needed more of a priority in the UK because poverty was defined in relative terms. The political constraints were again noted. There had been discussions at several previous meetings about "joined up thinking", and the desirability of integrated poverty planning. In the UK, many agencies were involved in Whitehall (including the DSS, the Social Exclusion Unit and the Treasury). This was regarded as a good sign, a symptom of creative energy. It was particularly valuable that the Treasury, responsible for macro economic policy, was engaged in thinking about poverty. This made it easier to develop policy evaluation criteria which gave priority to poverty. The recent government report on social exclusion had not specified detailed quantitative targets (partly for political reasons), but the impact of policy on poverty was being taken extremely seriously. There was still more to do, it seemed. For example, it seemed that teenage pregnancy was being tackled independently of a closely related problem, that of young male alienation/violence. The meeting ended by reaffirming that a fruitful discussion had been initiated, and by encouraging both the northern poverty community and the development community to find ways of continuing the conversation. Development specialists should not expect to become experts on UK poverty, or vice versa, but there was certainly scope to learn, and to look for common themes and connections.