Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Can Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) influence the national politics of poverty reduction?

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30

Sandra Pepera, DFID Governance Department
Chris Scott, LSE Economics Department

Simon Maxwell

Simon Maxwell, from ODI, started off the session reminding the audience of the previous week's debate on the role of extra-parliamentary processes in debates over trade policy and hoped to continue this debate in the cntext of discussion of Poverty Reduction Strategy Programmes (PRSPs). 

  1. Sandra Pepera, speaking on her own behalf not DFID's, addressed the extent to which PRSPs are influencing the politics of poverty reduction through a summary of donor's experience to date.

    She began by outlining the PRSP basics, suggesting that they should be country-led national strategies for poverty reduction, comprehensive in nature and based on a process of national consultation with "broad-based participation of the poor". They allow a country specific analysis of poverty grounded in a sound macro-economic framework for growth, including monitoring and evaluation systems and providing a basis for co-ordinated donor response. She stressed that most countries do not define themselves by their poverty, so we cannot assume that poverty reduction is at the heart of politics in developing countries. Nevertheless, she argued that PRSPs do influence the national politics of poverty reduction in four ways:

    1. The poverty reduction strategy process has, at its best, promoted wide-reaching consultation, for instance making the budget process much more transparent in several African countries;.
    2. This process has influenced policy direction and choices;
    3. It has positively influenced the "institutional environment", for instance in bringing the Ministry of Finance in contact with other Ministries promoting "joined up government" and addressing tensions between central and local government in the decentralisation process;
    4. The instruments donors use to support the process, including debt relief for those who pursue improved social spending also have a major impact on politics.

    She stressed that PRSPs are an intensely political issue in that they represent a genuine transfer of ownership and capacity from donors to stakeholders in the developing countries and open up a democratic space for policy dialogue and monitoring of spending. However, there is very little politics in the poverty reduction strategy, as most of the focus is on the technical aspects of governance and so far PRS papers have had weak analyses of politics, political realities, security and conflict. Public Financial Management (including issues of transparency, accountability, anticorruption) and budgetary processes remain central.

    Asking whether PRSPs can lead to "pro-poor politics and policy outcomes", Pepera said this will depend on the effectiveness of getting the voices of the poor into policy, on the potential for pro-poor alliances and on whether government can afford to make radical changes.

  2. Chris Scott chose to focus his talk on "PRSPs and the Politics of Poverty Monitoring in Tanzania", where he had worked during a stint at the World Bank. Poverty monitoring within the PRSPs - that is, measuring progress on centrally determined targets - represents a form of "conditionality with a human face". The process has provided debt relief in exchange for progress in achieving more effective public management, policy transparency, democratic accountability and more realistic poverty reduction targets. This raises important technical and political issues. He outlined four key political issues: 

    1. State and donor relations: In Tanzania, donors achieved a high level of coordination before the introduction of PRSPs. In the past most official development assistance has not been channelled through national budgetary processes due to the weak financial control exercised by the Ministry of Finance and other line agencies. The PRSP has accelerated movement towards the development of a single process of accountability to external and internal stakeholders linking the annual budget, the MTEF & the PRSP.
    2. Relations among agencies of central government have improved: Poverty monitoring has been achieved through a clear allocation of responsibilities because there are no turf battles involved and the government and donors invested in getting stakeholders on board.
    3. State-NGO relations: NGOs are represented within the poverty monitoring process controlled by government, but also able to act independently. Tension remains as government is not clear whom or what NGOs represent and NGOs are not convinced they are getting full access to data and the methodology used by the state for collecting data.
    4. Central-local government relations: Poverty monitoring within PRSPs has threatened to overwhelm local authorities with demands for information. There have been some tensions between the requirements of deconcentration of central government and those of devolution of political authority to local communities. If local governments cannot meet the new demands placed on them there is some worry that central government will re-appropriate powers and be less willing to engage in further decentralisation.
    There is also a political dimension to the methodologies of poverty monitoring. This can be seen in the discrepancies that arise between information generated from the largely qualitative processes of research at the local level, which can be intensely political, and the quantitative household survey data. These will require conciliation and arbitration. Scott finished his talk by pointing to the problems generated through poverty monitoring in the devolved administration of Zanzibar, particularly if the process leads to significantly different outcomes in the two regions.
  3. Discussion from the floor was animated, with many raising concerns about the manner in which PRSPs shaped politics in the countries where they have been adopted thus far, including:
    1. James Putzel, from the Development Research Centre at DESTIN, questioned whether the PRSPs take the focus off creating state capacity, such as fiscal capacity, to have the wherewithal to undertake redistributive reforms, or spend on the infrastructure needed to ensure the kind of growth that has always been required to reduce poverty. He asked whether PRSPs in their privileging of NGOs over political organisations actually contributed to weakening political actors, querying whether PRSPs had been submitted to legislatures or whether they have influenced the programmes of political parties.
    2. Joseph Hanlon, freelance journalist suggested that there now exists an alliance between elites and the international financial institutions that ignores poor people and the PRSP has been captured by this alliance in Mozambique. HIV/AIDs is not mentioned in the PRSP, public debate is not pursued and the PRSP has not been submitted to Parliament.
    3. A representative from the Bretton Woods Project spoke about the World Bank parliamentarians network, but said that parliamentarians lack information from the donors including the Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In Kenya, parliamentarians are excluded by an alliance between the government and the IFIs.
    4. David Jackson said the preparation of the PRSP in Mozambique excluded the public and the whole process brought about an "information overload". The government tended to go through the motions in adopting what was required by the PRSPs while keeping its own plans in relation to poverty reduction. A similar point was made by David Steel who said that in Nicaraguan communities no one knew anything about the PRSPs, poverty mapping and the like.
    5. Bob Ainscow, formerly with ODA, expressed worry about the lurch from issue to issue among the donors. He was not sure that donors have actually collective bought into to this process as they still need to be concerned overwhelmingly with fast dispersing aid.
    6. Manoj Srivastava, from the Development Research Centre at DESTIN suggested that the "local voices" brought into these processes are often the voices of local elites. We need to have empirical evidence of what kind of impact the PRSPs have had in the way politics is conducted.
    7. A representative from One World Action argued that PRSPs are as good or as weak as the political process in a given country and asked what the process has done to centre concern on gendered dimensions of poverty.
    8. Sandra Pepera argued that the path from "voice" to implementation of PRSPs is torturous. There has at least been a move from PRS"P" for "paper" to "P" for "process" and this has been positive. Chris Scott said that donors have in some cases bought in, but important actors like USAID would never buy in while others like JICA are shifting. Most positive has been the move toward a single process of accountability bringing donors into the budgetary process.


This event discussed the extent to which PRSPs are influencing the politics of poverty reduction through a summary of donor's experience to date.