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Marginalised and ignored: why some issues never make it onto policy agendas

Written by Kate Bird

Some issues fail to excite policy makers. They are complex, costly and do not help them win elections. Even where there is evidence that a problem affects large numbers of people, drawing them deeper into poverty, it may never be seen as a priority. So, we are unlikely to see G8 leaders discuss ways to reduce the exclusion of disabled people in low income developing countries. Why is this?

The causes of poverty are numerous and are complex and interlinked. Donors, practitioners and policy makers alike face challenges in prioritising, sequencing and allocating budgets to interventions to reduce poverty and improve well-being. Some issues rise to the top of agendas while others fail to gain prominence. Low priority issues may never reach the limelight not because they are unimportant but because they are poorly understood. Policy makers may lack evidence about the scale and severity of the problem. The information gap may be caused by inadequate research, or poor dissemination of existing research, or limited representation of the interests of poor people in policy formation processes. Alternatively, evidence may be both available and well communicated to policy makers, but they may not recognise the importance of an issue because dominant poverty and development discourse does not identify it as central to economic growth or poverty reduction.

Work in Uganda and India has shown that some ‘low priority’ issues are, in fact, of profound importance to some of the poorest and most excluded people. These include disability; mental illness; alcohol dependency; property grabbing from widows; and the near destitution of older people without support. These issues are multi-dimensional and deeply embedded, both socially and culturally – making intervention complex and potentially expensive. They represent for some the ‘ugly face’ of poverty and are more difficult to ‘sell’ than child poverty and disaster response.

Nevertheless NGOs and social movements have been effective in getting some of these issues (e.g. disability but not mental illness) onto policy agendas in both Uganda and India and new policies have been made. The challenge has then been to convince people who implement policy (e.g. street level bureaucrats) and the general public that the beneficiaries of the policy ‘deserve’ help, that the policy change is necessary and that an additional expenditure is a good use of funds. Without this process of legitimation, implementation falters and a gulf widens between policy as written and policy as practiced. A key challenge is national and international debates about poverty which divide poor people into two groups – the deserving and undeserving: the assumption is that the latter are responsible for their own poverty and should be left to deal with their problems on their own. However, if the challenges faced by some of the most vulnerable and marginalised poor people are to be overcome, people’s belief systems about some people deserving their poverty need to be confronted.

Source: Bird, K. and Pratt, N. et al., 2004, ‘Fracture Points in Social Policies for Chronic Poverty Reduction’, Chronic Poverty Research Centre Working Paper 47 / ODI Working Paper 242, Overseas Development Institute, London