Pro-Poor Politics

Unfortunately, my confusion grows… so there is actually such a thing as pro-poor politics! The fact that I am confused should not in the least be surprising when one considers that I derive my foundation from the Athenian intellectual tradition where the primary focus of thought was the State, rather than the individual, and the all thinking on politics or economics stressed the political solidar­ity of society.  In the Republic for example Plato writes that  “A State, . . . arises… out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants. . . . Then, as we have many wants, and many persons are needed to supply them, one takes a helper for one purpose and another for another; and when these partners and helpers are gathered together in one habita­tion the body of inhabitants is termed a State. . . . And they exchange with one another, and one gives, and another receives, under the idea that the exchange will be for their good.” The origin of the state therefore, is as a result of the absence of individual self-sufficiency in the satisfaction of wants.

Coming after Plato, Aristotle took another perspective to make the same point, indicating the importance of interdependence of everyone in the city state. Aristotle in Politics Book 1 pt. 2 points out that “… the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand. . . . The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.”
If one were to go by these arguments, it becomes difficult not to conclude that society should be structured in such a way that every action benefits everyone. This could be done by applying laws that are progressive and that once implemented at the State level inevitably trickles down to every person. Unfortunately, the reality is not the case today in most developing countries where the elites consider themselves to be ‘above’ the State and actions that should have been carried out for the benefit of the state as a whole and where not carried out ( or carried out in such a way that leads to the fulfillment of the selfish interests of the Elites, at the detriment of the poor) are today being carried out with the tag  – Pro-Poor. Is it actually for the poor or is it done to prevent the poor being a problem to the welfare of the elites?

Before the lectures and discussions this week, I had this question going through my mind. Is pro-poor politics an end itself – the welfare of the poor – or is it a means to an end – getting the poor in a better situation that will reduce the possibility of them being a problem to the rich? I was more convinced there was need to look beyond the idea to the reality because Locke’s words kept re-echoing in my mind

The gap between our ideas and words about the world, and the world itself, is large and difficult, but still, if one man calls something good, while another man calls it evil, the deed or man referred to still has real qualities of good or evil, the categories exist in the world regardless of our names for them, and if one man’s word does not correspond to another mans word, this a problem of communication, not fundamental arbitrariness in reality.

Hence the bottom-line should be “good politics” – to call it ‘pro-poor’ or any other name does not change the effects of the action carried out. There is no gainsaying the fact that a hospital or good sanitation facilities provided in a poor neighbourhood benefits the poor but what is not noticed or spoken is that it also frees the rich from drudgery of having to think of a cholera outbreak that will not discriminate between poor and rich.

When I was reading through Moore and Putzel’s (2001) paper, I was fascinated by the ease with which they presented the arguments relating to pro-poor policy making. I could not help questioning some of their conclusions/assumptions:

First they feel that democracy has differential outcomes for the poor. The first problem I found with this assumption was the lack of delineation of what they meant by ‘poverty’. Are they discussing absolute poverty or relative poverty? These distinctions will go a long way to change some of the broad conclusions they arrived at. Secondly, the term democracy is used there loosely to simply mean ‘providing people with a framework to vote for their leaders’ – but is that really what democracy is all about? While I will like to agree with them (especially going by the illustration given of Kamataka and Andhra Pradesh) that the nature of politics has different effects on the poor, I however could not fail to notice that they only succeeded in pointing to what was obvious and illustrating these with examples. The question should  not be what name a particular system of politics or governance is called but how much it impacts on the life of the people as a whole. Hence I totally agree with them that making accomplishments in poverty reduction a criterion for legitimacy of governments will be a wonderful idea. Unfortunately the problem arises about how to measure these accomplishments. Who will be the arbiter and who are those involved in the presentation of evidence? Will it be the poor themselves?

According to Chipi (2010)

“…the adoption of democratic institutions does not alone suggest a change in elite behaviour or in the actions they take. The persistence of poverty reflects its institutionalization within social and political norms as well as institutions and its acceptance within political discourse. Hence, noble agendas – such as empowerment of the poor, or increased political space for the poor to participate in – offer very little promise if the elites who are required to adopt and implement these institutions are anyhow ignored.”

While I agree entirely with the first part of her argument, I question very much the logic of the concluding part because experience has shown that there may well be some situations where the elites are not required to ‘adopt’ and ‘implement’ institutions. In most cases, they tend to be inimical to the whole process of empowerment of the poor. The reason I think is that, having being established as a ruling class, most of the elites in poor countries generally enrich themselves at the public’s expense through public graft and corruption as well as deals with foreign capitalists. For example Fanon presents this situation prosaically that;

By dint of yearly loans, concessions are snatched up by foreigners: scandals are numerous, ministers grow rich, their wives doll themselves up, the members of parliament feather their nest and there is not a soul down to the simple policeman or the custom officer who does not join in the great procession of corruption.”(1963:165-66)

In Nigeria, for example, Njoko points out that “The present political economy has largely succeeded in erecting greedy an affluent politicians and a listless, scarred public. In fact, the myth that is a way of African life has to be abandoned. Our experience so far is that the government, the politician, is the greatest armed robber, victimiser or oppressor in Nigeria.”  (2004:91) The issue  remains unclear whether there is such a thing as pro-poor or whether policies aimed at the poor are simply part of a political agenda.

Later following Chipi’s presentation, the picture became a bit clear. When she narrated the story of a ‘poor’ woman who called a parliamentarian and asked her to pay her child’s school fees, I said to myself that this should be a really good situation where the poor can talk directly to the Elites and ask them for favours. One thing however that I am yet to clearly understand is if whether everyone has access to the private numbers of parliamentarians in Malawi. Since this will obviously not be the case, I will certainly not be wrong to conclude that one has to belong to a certain class to have access to such privy information. Another thing that I succeeded in getting both from her (2010) paper and her presentation is that the general consensus seems that pro-poor policies are for the poor a privilege, rather a right to  mutually beneficial governance.

I don’t know if you notice what I have just noticed myself… my confusion seems to be waning a bit! What I cannot fail to realise also however, is the fact that I keep having this agitation in my heart as I discuss this issue of poverty. The reason is simple… it’s a road I have walked and I am not discussing it as a merely academic exercise but it is almost like an evaluation of the paths I have trod. No wonder I look forward so much to the discussion next week of Elites, Politics and Development…

Chipiliro K.N  2010. Mutual Interdependence between Elites and the Poor Working Paper No. 2010/117 World Institute for Development Economic Research

Fanon, F. 1963. The wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press,

Njoku, O.C 2004. Development and African Philosophy: A Theoretical Reconstruction of African Socio-Political Economy, New York: iUniverse, Inc.

2 thoughts on “Pro-Poor Politics

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