Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

A Primer on Foreign Aid – 3: Real Issues

May 31, 2011

We are now in a position, having described the evidence (A Primer on Foreign Aid – 2), to discuss the less obvious dimensions of foreign aid which address issues of whether aid can be effective and under what kinds of conditions. (more…)

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A Primer on Foreign Aid – 2: Rationale and Results

May 30, 2011

With the basic definitions out of the way (A Primer on Foreign Aid – 1) we can move on to the rationale of foreign aid and its results and consequences. (more…)

A Primer on Foreign Aid – 1: Essential Definitions

May 29, 2011

Foreign aid is almost always in the news, at times more than others. All sorts of questions keep swirling in the air: questions about its nature, rationale, aims, effects, results, justification, symbolism, and even about its quantum. All through this heated debate the issue remains surrounded by a thick fog of obfuscation; many remain unclear of what exactly is being talked about. In this post, I intend to present a primer on foreign aid. Each of the opinions offered in the following sections can be contested; the aim is not to provide a definitive conclusion but to set the stage for an informed debate that employs common definitions and a shared point of departure. (more…)

Understanding Poverty

May 2, 2011

There is a set of people in every country who are called the ‘poor’ and the ‘non-poor’ have quite contradictory assumptions about them. For example, despite ample evidence it is considered politically incorrect to say that the ‘poor’ trade their votes because the entire legitimacy of representative government rests on responsible voting behavior. Yet, the same people often say that the ‘poor’ do not know how to spend their money; they waste their income on inessentials ignoring higher priority needs of food, health and education. Hence, policymakers recommend the ‘poor’ be given ration supplements or food vouchers instead of equivalent cash transfers.

The question is inescapable: Are the ‘poor’ rational or irrational? How can the same set of people be rational in one domain and irrational in another? (more…)

Blame it on the People

March 3, 2011

By Dipankar Gupta

The fundamental law of politics is that rulers act and the ruled react. This truth has held in all hitherto existing societies: it is carbon dated, weather proofed and tropicalized. The difference democracy makes is that it lets the people judge its leaders, but only after they have already acted. When an elected leader advocates a policy in the name of popular will, it nearly always is a big lie. By using people as a cover, ugly politicians have found happiness in parliaments everywhere.

The sentiments of the people count when they are asked to judge a policy on Election Day. While votes do matter, they are always cast after the political act has taken place; never before it. (more…)

Forget the Poor

March 1, 2011

By Dipankar Gupta

Editor’s Note: Professor Dipankar Gupta has forwarded two articles to contribute to the debate on helping the poor that was initiated in the previous post on this blog. This is the first of the two articles. The second would be posted subsequently.

The best way to fight poverty is not to plan for the poor. The moment one singles them out for special services, absurdities, and worse, begin to abound. This is especially true when their numbers are large. Targeted policies work best when they are aimed at a small minority. It is not possible to have special programmes that affect anything between 50% to 70% of the population. In which case, one might as well have a revolution! (more…)

“Helping the Poor”: The Idea, the Reality and the Shadow

February 22, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Between the idea and the reality, Eliot wrote, falls the shadow. The phrase is so well known as to be almost cliché, but as with many clichés, there is truth to it. There is universality, too – the metaphor could extend to many areas; there are shadows everywhere. Foreign aid, for example: there is the idea and the reality, the theory and the practice, the intent and the execution.

The theory of foreign aid is simple enough: If those lacking capital and technology and ideas were provided with such, they could be launched on the path of progress. In practice it has rarely ever worked like that – there is more to the equation than capital and technology and ideas.

There is the shadow that falls between the theory and the results, a shadow full of objectives stated and unstated, incentives of this party and that (and, of course, their representatives, who develop in the end their own interests, their own goals, their own shadows) – all this, more often than not, causing enough distortions for the reality to mock the idea.

This happens not only in foreign aid, but in any transaction where one party has advice or help or assistance that the other desperately needs, when negotiations are not equal, when representatives of each come with their own axes to grind. Consider the shadow now visible between the idea and the reality of sub-prime mortgage lending: the unstated objectives, the incentive distortions, the regulatory winks and nods, the quick fix to keep the game going for at least one more round. In 1961, Jane Jacobs, who had little to do with foreign aid, was astute enough to realize the pitfalls. Based solely on her observations of how federal assistance was implemented in low-income areas of American cities, she remarked in her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “I hope we disburse foreign aid abroad more intelligently than we disburse it at home.”

Much of this has been obvious for years to those in the aid and lending communities who have kept their eyes and ears open; what has eluded us is that blinding insight that lays it all bare, the kind of insight that comes most often from literature. As literature identified the existence of the shadow, it was literature again that unraveled its nature. Theodore Dalrymple has written an account of the writer Rhys Davies (1901-1978) whom he has called the Welsh Chekhov. I can’t vouch for that since I haven’t yet read Davies but I intend to, especially the story that illuminated for me the shadow of foreign aid – “I Will Keep Her Company,” published in The New Yorker in January 1964.

The story, in Dalrymple’s words, concerns a couple in their eighties, living in an isolated farmhouse in the Welsh hills and snowed in. The old woman has died and the husband, refusing to acknowledge her death, is staying by her bedside. There is in the story a district nurse assigned to the care of the couple:

Meanwhile, Nurse Baldock has geared up a rescue operation involving a snowplow, a van, and a helicopter. She is, as her name seems to suggest, conscientious and bossy and, having completed a diploma in social studies in her spare time, believes herself entitled to a promotion. She had visited Evans a few days previously, when his wife had just died, and was prevented from removing the body by the snow. Now she is returning, determined to get his agreement to leave for the old-age home. When she finds him dead, she utters a bitter yet self-satisfied recrimination:

“This needn’t have happened if he had come with me, as I wanted six days ago! Did he sit there all night deliberately? . . . Old people won’t listen. When I said to him, “Come with me, there’s nothing you can do for her now,” he answered, “Not yet. I will keep her company.” I could have taken him at once to Pistyll Manor Home. It was plain he couldn’t look after himself. One of those unwise men who let themselves be spoilt by their wives.”

In a few pages, with a highly sophisticated simplicity, Davies arouses emotions and thoughts as impossible to resolve into full coherence as life itself. John Evans’s death is both tragic and a triumphant final expression of the love that gave his life meaning; we oscillate between sorrow and joy, between discomfiture and reassurance, as we read. As for Nurse Baldock, she encapsulates the mixture of good intentions, condescension, and careerism that is the modern welfare state. Rationally, we cannot refuse to endorse the efforts to rescue Evans; it would be a terrible world in which his predicament evoked no response. At the same time, we know that these efforts are not only beside the point but, at the deepest level, incapable of being other than beside the point.

There it is: The Evanses are the recipients, Nurse Baldock the donor, “encapsulat[ing] the mixture of good intentions, condescension, and careerism” that is the modern aid enterprise. Her judgments of John Evans echo the familiar comments of the aid executive – poor people “won’t listen,” “men [have] let themselves be spoilt” by their unwise ways. If only he had heeded her advice; if only poor countries would follow the instructions given to them by the well-intentioned donors.

The notion of “helping the poor” is a noble one, but it comes with this shadow that falls between people, states and their citizens, donors and recipients, between individuals and representatives, and this shadow grows darker and deeper as we try to pretend that it is not there, that it can be fixed with one quick step (always one quick step, just to keep us going for the next round).

Perhaps the story offers another insight as well. Nurse Baldock, with her plow and her van and her helicopter, her diploma in social studies, the full weight of the state behind her, is immeasurably more powerful than a weak, devastated, poor old man. Of course to her it is simple; she knows what is right, she knows what he needs far better than he himself could. But what if Nurse Baldock could meet John Evans as her equal?  What if she could try, instead of helping him by force, to engage with him? In this light, might the shadow finally begin to fade?

Theodore Dalrymple’s article (The Welsh Chekhov) can be accessed here.
Nurse Baldock is reincarnated as Lucymemsahib in our fellow panelist, Samia Altaf’s book (So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan) forthcoming from the Johns Hopkins University Press in May 2011.
For more on foreign aid on this blog, see:
Should Pakistan Receive More Foreign Aid?

How to Aid the Health Sector in Pakistan
Remaking Public School Education in Pakistan

 

 

Imaginings: Where is India Headed?

November 5, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

I see the future in India being shaped by the intersection of three major tendencies playing out in the context of one major trend, the difference between a tendency and a trend being that the former is reversible and the latter not. And there is one joker in the pack.

The three tendencies are increased empowerment of some of the poor via the democratic process, the recourse by the marginalized to rebellion, and the attraction of the middle classes to soft authoritarianism. The trend is urbanization. And the joker in the pack is economic growth.

Let me speculate on how these forces might make themselves felt over the next decade or so. (more…)

Pakistan: What Do You Want?

November 6, 2009

You must have had the experience of catching just a part of an interesting conversation and wondering how it might have evolved. It happened to me today as I moved past an African and a South Asian who, the words suggested, was a Pakistani. I heard the African asking, “What do professionals like you really want to see happening in Pakistan?” And    before I could hear the answer the words were swallowed by the silence.

It was a good question at a time when Pakistanis seem to be living from day to day just hoping for the situation to stabilize. What kind of Pakistan might middle class professionals really want beyond this immediate crisis if they got around to thinking about it? I would have loved to hear but the opportunity was lost. I wondered then what I might have said had I been given that part in some role-play exercise or in a mock UN format. (more…)

South Asia – 2: Three Deprivations

October 25, 2009

Our recent poll eliciting the ten most unacceptable things in South Asia today is open to another interpretation – it tells a tale of three nested deprivations.

The first deprivation is absolute – characterized by people existing below a level that is unacceptable in any self-respecting society. We had identified the dimensions of this absolute deprivation some time back – lack of an adequate amount of food, water, hygiene, housing, and education. All these are attributes that are associated with an inadequate income.

The second deprivation pertains to the inadequacy of rights – the right to physical safety, dignity, justice, and employment based on merit. This pertains only partly to inadequate income. It is also related to the imbalance of power. (more…)