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Principal Voices

Making poverty history

  • Story Highlights
  • Oxfam's new book "From Poverty to Power" examines how poverty can be eradicated
  • Report describes how the IMF and the World Bank can often play a "destructive role"
  • Education of girls has had a range of key consequences in breaking cycle of poverty
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By Matthew Knight
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Oxfam's new book "From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World" is a detailed and vivid account of poverty, its effects and how it can be eradicated. Principal Voices spoke to the book's author and Head of Research at Oxfam GB, Duncan Green about the charity's prescription for change.

A boy holds a baby in a street in a Shanty town in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. One third of Cambodia's population live in poverty.

A boy holds a baby in a street in a Shanty town in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. One third of Cambodia's population live in poverty.

How do you think Oxfam's approach to tackling poverty has changed since your last report in 1995?

Two of the big changes are a much greater awareness of the main arena for development is within countries. A combination of providing an effective state that can provide schools, hospitals, roads, energy and which is accountable to their citizens. And at the same time strengthening the voice of citizens so they feel self-confidence and the ability to get together and demand changes. It's that combination of active citizens and effective states which is where the main drama of development is and always has been.

So, one change is that we are much more aware of that and within that the whole issue of who holds power, who decides what, rather than concentrating solely on policies and clever ideas you have to look at the issue of power and politics.

Could you explain what you mean by the terms "active citizens" and "effective states"?

If you look at an economy just in terms of GDP per capita then actually you don't need active citizens that much. What you need is a state that provides rule of law, political stability guarantees property rights, an enabling environment for business -- so that businesses can get access to finance, and they are not closed down by corrupt politicians.

Also, the state has to provide an educated healthy workforce and then there is an ever expanding range of things that the state has to do. There is no substitute for that, you cannot privatize all that and still function.

If you look at South Korea, China, Vietnam, Botswana, Costa Rica -- any of those sort of success stories of which there are dozens -- you can always point to an effective state.

We don't see development as just about GDP per capita. If you actually ask poor people what it is they hate about being poor, they often talk about being at the mercy of officials. They talk about not being able to pay the dowry for their kids, they feel as though they look bad and have anxiety about what will happen tomorrow -- e.g. what happens if my husband gets knocked off his rickshaw and we have no safety net at all?

So there are a whole bunch of questions that revolve around rights and the ability of citizens to have rights and enjoy them.

In terms of "active citizens", can this really be applied to places like China at the moment?

I think China's one of those countries where you've seen an effective state drive growth. There is an increasing sense that they are going to have shift on rights and citizenship. It's interesting that the Chinese Government is aware of the potential problems and are starting to think about how they deal with them, but it is a slow process.

I not claiming for a moment that China's example is the right balance between active citizens and effective states. A good example of this is somewhere like Finland, which has no right to be doing as well as it is. In the 1920s and 30s it developed this social contract between citizens and state which has held the country together and go from being essentially a developing country to an industrialized country.

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There are other examples where we've seen active citizenship work -- The Chiquitano Indians in Bolivia where 30 years ago they were essentially feudal serfs and due to their own organization they have gone from there to having their own organization -- electing mayors, senators and eventually a president. And they've just gained the right to a million acres of ancestral land.

Now that climate change is a crucial part of any economic equation, what will this mean for growth in developing countries?

Historically countries like China have developed through a phase of dirty growth -- in terms of general pollution but also carbon emissions. But most countries become cleaner as they get more developed. The problem now is that the environmental limits are such that you can't have the rest of the world following that path now.

The real concern is that our leaders are saying they will do low carbon development but they don't have a single role model to follow. They underestimate the scale of the challenge and they also look in the wrong place for the challenge.

Yes, the challenge is technological, but I'd say it's primarily a political challenge. Take the United States for example. A recent paper by Nicholas Stern says that in the long term we have to get to a world where the allowance of carbon is one ton per year. Current emissions in the U.S. are twenty tons per person, per year.

Yes, technology is crucial if we want to go from twenty tons to one ton, but there is a huge amount of politics to get the U.S. to agree that we should all have the same carbon allowance. You've really got to convince the U.S. that an Indian has the same right to carbon as Americans. Politically, that is going to be very challenging. And even within India that a rich person has one ton and so does a pauper.

What happens if you don't achieve that? Carbon will be catastrophic for climate change, not for everybody, but it will be for poor people especially in the tropical zones.

What's your opinion on the situation with biofuels?

Biofuels is a really good illustration of what happens in a major scarcity, in that the U.S. and the European desire for energy security is outweighing developing countries need for food.

In general, there are two problems. First generation biofuels aren't much good and the second problem has been not to distinguish both between different first generation biofuels and first and second generation biofuels.

You've got a situation now where some biofuels are, net, worse for the climate. Even ones that are not, there is a huge lack of knowledge as to what their final carbon footprint is.

We need to do far more research, far more quickly, distinguish between different biofuels and be much clearer about their carbon imprint and their social impact.

In the book you talk about concentration of power within markets. What is your prescription for how that power might be dispersed?

A fairly traditional one really. If you have one company negotiating with a million small farmers the company is in a very strong position and the farmers are in a very weak position because they are negotiating individually. If a million small farmers have an organization or a producer co-op they are in a much better position to negotiate a better deal. So it really is about organization of the power of the people who are currently powerless in markets and then the state creating a facility to enable them to benefit.

The classic one is finance. If you can't get credit as a farmer you're stuffed. Lots of small farmers find it ridiculously hard to get credit.

You describe the role of the IMF and the World Bank in development as "hugely controversial" and "in many eyes, profoundly destructive". How are they destructive and how can they improve?

One example of the IMF's destructive role is that they are so worried about inflation in developing countries that they place a salary cap on public employees. At the same time the World Bank is pushing for a greater provision of education and health. It's not coherent. Teachers are paid so little that they have to get second jobs. So you have recruitment problems and you can't deliver on the basic role of the state when you have such tight control.

Part of the problem is that the IMF is very central. It's in the wrong place, it's in Washington.

The World Bank, the IMF and the United Nations were set up as part of a post-war settlement sixty years ago. Things have really changed and there are real growing pains in international system in terms of responding to the rise of China and India and in terms of responding to the shift of economic issues. There are a whole bunch of problems of which climate change is just the latest, where the International system isn't fit for purpose. I think there is agreement that it is not fit for purpose but there isn't agreement about what to do about it.

You say in the book that there are examples of increasing gender equity and that education is crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty. Could you give some examples how increased access to education is benefiting women and girls?

The spread of primary education, both in terms of the whole population, but particularly to girls has a number of really important consequences. It leads to a rapid drop in fertility rates. As a comparison of China's one child policy with Kerala's -- south India -- provision of education. One is coercive and abusive and one is empowering and they both get the same results.

It's not just about fertility rates. The spread of female education leads to changes in domestic relations, women who have been to school are less likely to be abused at home and are more likely to get jobs, manage their own finances and be more independent. There are a huge range of benefits.

Children of educated women are less likely to be malnourished, so it goes on to the next generation as well, breaking the cycle of poverty. It's happened in a number of countries -- Sri Lanka has been really successful in providing universal education even though it's a pretty poor country.

When the next Oxfam report comes out, what do you hope will have happened or have been achieved?

Say we do the next report in 2020. We will look back on today and say; wow, we just got out in the nick of the time. We created a global system similar to the creation of the welfare state or the "New Deal". We now have a global new deal which has enabled us to just get under the wire on climate change and prevent some of the worst impacts. It has allowed for everyone to have a kind of minimum decency -- no one has less than a dollar a day -- and there are some basic minimum standards. That's the hope.

Read the book in full here and watch the "From Poverty to Power" video here.

All About PovertyGlobal Climate ChangeOxfam International

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