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Putting politics into poverty reduction? The World Development Report (WDR) on empowerment

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30

Mick Moore
, Institute of Development Studies
David Booth

Mick Moore started his presentation by comparing the WDR to the Bible: it's a long document and you can probably find what you are looking for in it somewhere. There is a certain randomness about the report, but overall he is not too critical of it. However, he regrets that the report is not very exciting in terms of empowerment; its political analysis and recommendations are unlikely to lead to any significant change.

The WDR includes the usual WB mantras about good governance; the importance of fighting corruption and the rule of law; and decentralisation and democracy as good for poverty reduction. What has been left out entirely is any definition of 'empowerment'. The concept is applied very loosely in the report, and is either used as a synonym for making people better off, or as something closely related to 'community'. Both of these have their problems. Firstly, one should not assume that access to more resources equals empowerment in general; it is maybe more accurate to talk about 'opportunities' or 'security' in this connection. Secondly, one should not take for granted that there is a close coupling between empowerment and 'community'. This implies an association between poor people and community that is maybe more often than not a result of our own imagination. Moore could not help speculating on the relationship between the obsession with 'community' and the popularity of Social Funds in the World Bank. Is there more than a coincidence of interest here?

The WDR does not include any practical messages on to how to promote empowerment - on what the 'friends of the poor' should do. A background paper prepared by Moore and James Putzel did include some suggestions of this sort; however, these ideas were not reflected in the final report. They included the point that state promotion of civil society calls for an effective state; and the value of programmes designed in a way that creates incentives for the poor to mobilise, e.g. around a common goal such as a minimum wage. Moore ended his presentation by claiming that maybe empowerment was a concept too watered down to be of any use; should we concentrate on the crucial issue of redistribution instead?

In the following discussion it was argued that maybe the ambiguities surrounding the term empowerment reflect realities 'on the ground'. To what extent could governments encourage empowerment without patronage - were there any ways governments could do it without being accused of patronage? In two cases in Sri Lanka, support from the government to Civil Society Organisations was received in different ways. In one case, the support was welcomed and accepted; in the other the fear of patronage made the groups reject the support. What had been left out of the discussion is that in many cases, the real issue is having the time, skills and commitment to run programmes. The crucial thing is to put people in a position where they are able to take control over their own future. Moore replied that the ambiguities on the ground were indeed reflected in the WDR.

Maybe Moore was too cynical about the coalition in interest around social funds. The real issue should be whether social funds are the right instruments for delivering aid. It was then suggested that the link between resources and empowerment was too easily dismissed by Moore: who are we to say that access to economic resources cannot be empowering for people - not the money itself, but rather what money can give access to? Moore replied that in his opinion, it is a mistake to equate empowerment with improved economic status. Money can make individuals more powerful, but empowerment entails collective organisation. It is in respect to this issue of mobilising people for empowerment that the WDR fails.

To what extent is the WDR the right place to call for mobilisation? The WDR is a 300-400 page report, not a one-page call to action. Also, the World Bank has many faces and one must, for example, separate the lending face of the Bank from the knowledge face (which maybe the WDR belongs to). Someone questioned whether the 'Vocies of the poor' exercise had led to a better report. Moore stressed that there are lots of ways of mobilising people, but maybe some of the messages from both the background papers and 'Voices of the poor' were too subtle to translate into the WDR.

There are certain ambiguities arising from the process of taking the report more and more out of the Bank (e.g. by using background papers) but not quite letting go. Would it, perhaps, be more productive if the WDR remained solely a World Bank document that the development community could debate with (and criticise)? James Wolfensohn, the President of the Bank, once said that the WDR was meant as a tool for dialogue with the development community - providing material for debate rather than giving answers.


During this event, Mick Moore discusses the pros and cons of the WDR.