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Moving out of poverty: success from the bottom up

Written by Caroline Harper

The World Bank book, Moving Out of Poverty: Success from the Bottom Up is a compelling read.  Much of the content resonates with what I know: its emphasis on individual empowerment, on listening to people and on personal agency – stressing emphatically the importance of psychological dimensions – all of these are familiar to anyone who has worked on participatory programmes and this book reaffirms their importance. It stresses the absolute centrality of families and the power of unity, as well as the tensions of gender and family power relations. It sets out to change perceptions of who the poor are – not a static, monochrome set of people waiting for change – but a dynamic group of individuals with energy and initiative. It makes constant allusions to subjects close to my own understanding of what drives development -- personal empowerment, power and gender relations, families, collective action and, therefore, makes social relations a central theme. With so much development literature skipping over these crucial factors, this book looked like it was pushing all the right buttons.

It is no easy task to deal with datasets of this size – the views of 60,000 people; condensing a multitude of issues into clear points; and to make difficult choices about what is most important. Creating order out of complexity is a challenging task -- you may not agree with its conclusions, but it meets the challenge and makes a case that is built on empirical data. The book also talks about poverty dynamics – something we addressed comprehensively in the second Chronic Poverty Report (CPR2).  The dynamics of poverty is crucial not least because understanding why people move in and out of poverty, enables policies designed to get them out and keep them out. Using the lens of poverty dynamics also shows that poverty is not an identity but a situation.  The book reinforces what we know to be true – in the main people are not poor because they are lazy, feckless, or criminal. They are not poor because of their personal characteristics, but because of their personal situation. And they can, and do, leave this situation behind.

However, there is a major problem that runs through the book and undermines its potential impact. It is the way in which social relations are so central and yet so partial. This problem starts with the self definition of poverty. These experienced researchers have considered the inherent problems -- subjectivity, biases in recall, social context and power structures – but the implications of the bias are not carried through and addressed. 

These self identified causes of poverty and routes out of poverty make much of initiative and opportunity, but little of systemic discrimination and oppression. This is very notable in the pie charts. Not surprisingly, there is no pie segment that says ‘my route out of poverty was overcoming gender or caste discrimination’. Few of us use such terms. However, there are no segments that say  ‘my husband/ religion/caste/class won’t let me go to market; get an education; get better employment; educate my daughter; use birth control’; and so on.

There are many reasons why people do not voice such concerns – who is present in the room when talking, and, therefore, suspicion and fear.  But it is also because people affected by oppressive norms can find it difficult to pinpoint, articulate and explain their impact, especially when they both enable and disable the individual – norms such as patronage or, some would argue, marriage.

The ability of ‘the poor’ (or indeed any of us) to define the impact of systemic discrimination and social orders in our lives is often limited, as social norms are all encompassing and determine how we see the world in which we live. 

We – probably most of you reading this blog – are so used to travel that we forget how much it helps us reflect on who we are and how we live. We are made more aware of ourselves in relation to others by stepping out of our own communities, and see our own lives as if from a distance.  If you never step out of your social norm, how can you know how your life is shaped; how it may be different? 

Therefore, I have real concerns about allowing self definition to drive the methodology and indeed the conclusions of this book, and I disagree with its claim that ‘the individual is the expert on her own life’. I understand the intention of this sentence, with so many ‘development experts’ already telling the poor what to do, but individuals do need a wider perspective to understand and indeed change their own life. 

So the book is conscious of social relations and the structural and systemic basis of inequality and oppression, but ultimately it abandons its potential influence in defining poverty.

The methodology itself thus partly explains why these systemic factors are marginalised – the definition is limited, and limits, in turn, the potential conclusions.  Additionally by focusing in the main on the ‘local’ for both explanations for, and solutions to, poverty, the book fails to address much wider systemic issues. Overcoming oppressive power relations requires going beyond the local, to look at the deeper society-wide causes such as discrimination, prejudice and unequal distribution of power across entire societies. Confined both to the local and to a partial explanation of poverty the book neglects this challenge. The social dimensions of poverty thus emerge again and again in each chapter, and gender concerns, social stratification and power issues seem to be battling to get into the conclusions, but they do not cross the finish line. Chapter after chapter succumbs to the dominance of economists’ concerns.

This explains partially why the book fails to arrive at socially relevant policy conclusions. Concurring to the Bank’s mainstream agenda may also be an issue.  In addition, determining what to do about social inequality is no easy task. However, history tells us change can and does happen. In the CPR2 we stressed anti-discrimination, empowerment and collective action, despite inherent difficulties in relating these to policy. We also held fast to human development and social protection as core elements of an agenda for social justice. But these difficult and vital areas fade into the background in this book, where democracy, markets and individual opportunities hold sway.

The conclusions thus belie the content, unconvincingly playing down safety nets and public services and abandoning any intent to combat discrimination and inequalities. The book contains a multitude of women’s voices, but little on gender related policy; a whole chapter on collective action, but a conclusion focused on the individual does not ring true.

If your conclusion is informed primarily by the voices you have heard and their definition of poverty does not encompass systemic inequalities, then these inequalities will not feature. This is a problem for the book and ultimately for the poor.

Moving Out of Poverty: Success from the Bottom Up contains considerable truths about the reality of lives lived in poverty. It accentuates the importance of ‘listening’, but the conclusion is, ultimately, unconvincing. For those already ‘converted’ to the importance of ‘voice’, the conclusions fail to live up to the rich narrative. For those not convinced about the validity of participatory research, the book’s failure to engage ‘differently’ with new insights at the macro policy level will allow them to dismiss conclusions that could have been reached  without such ‘conversations’.

This is a missed opportunity.  I would urge the authors to write a follow up set of conclusions – this time bringing social factors and systemic discrimination to the macro level policy table.  Read this book – it contains knowledge we all need – but draw your own conclusions.