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Growth, Poverty And Power In South Asia
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, 11th April 2002


In the first three decades of the post war period governments of South Asian countries as well as donor agencies aimed at achieving high GDP growth without much concern for distributional issues, and implemented development policies within centralized, top down administrative structures. By the 1980s, persistent high levels, and in some cases growing poverty, emerged as an important factor in social polarization and pressures on the political structures of the States in South Asia. These were tensions of culturally diverse societies within nation states that over three decades had failed to give the bottom 30% of the population an economic stake in the system. Consequently there was a political assertion and in some cases violent expression of various sub-national identities along ethnic, linguistic, regional and sectarian lines. Under these circumstances the orthodox approach of top-down development began to be questioned by governments and donors alike, quite apart from those outside the establishment.

The traditional view that high GDP growth would trickle down to the poor and over time eliminate it, failed in practice because: (a) The level of GDP growth required to have a major impact on poverty was so high at existing levels of inequality (over 9% GDP growth), that they could not be achieved, given the export earnings capability and the domestic savings rates of South Asian countries and (b) Failure of the public sector to deliver even basic services to the poor because of management inefficiency and an inability to effectively target the poor. Over the last decade growing budgetary constraints have also restricted the financial ability of the public sector to reach out to the poor within traditional centralized administrative structures.


A number of governments and some multilateral institutions are now propounding pro poor growth, poverty eradication and decentralization. Yet the sense in which these policy issues are being articulated is still located in the paradigm of the isolated individual, making choices in free markets, within existing structures of power. Within these institutions of markets, state power and some sections of civil society, the poor continue to be conceived as a marginalized stratum of society. Thus the policies of pro poor growth decentralization and poverty alleviation tend to signify what could be termed, sustainable marginalisation. It could result in a mere pacification of the poor so as to defuse the pressures on the system of power as it is presently constituted. Thus the policy issues while appearing to be a break from the past may be located in the traditional paradigm quite different from the paradigm of Participatory Development. (This paradigm has been articulated in my earlier book: A Strategy of Poverty Alleviation, Vanguard, Lahore, 1994).

By way of illustration let us take three concepts in turn and see how they signify different policy measures depending on the paradigm in which they are located:

(a) Pro Poor Growth is conceived in the conventional paradigm in terms of: (i) giving greater emphasis to micro enterprises simply by creating new banking institutions for giving the poor access to micro credit (Such as Pakistan's Khushali Bank, or the PKSF in Bangladesh). Market distortions in this paradigm are supposed to be overcome merely through government deregulation. The implicit assumption here is that the poor exist as isolated individual entrepreneurs who are free to respond to market opportunities. Within the Participatory Development paradigm by contrast, the poor are conceived as fragmented communities who are locked into a structure of power which keeps them dependent on the landlord moneylender, and local state officials. Local markets are mediated by local elites which give the poor unequal access over both input and output markets, even if the state at the national level has undertaken "de-regulation", or withdrawal of official governmental controls. The key issue therefore with respect to economic initiatives by poor households in the Participatory Development Paradigm is to enable the poor to break out of this local nexus of power. This nexus constrains the poor from independent economic initiatives and deprives them of their actual and potential economic surplus.

The Participatory Development paradigm conceives of the poor not as isolated individuals but as communities whose creative potential is to be unleashed through a sequenced process of social mobilisation, recovery of community consciousness, and income generation. The challenge here is to establish a new relationship between the individual and his community, between the individual and himself/herself and to enable the poor to conduct a localized process of capital accumulation that keeps their surplus in their own hands. Through this process the poor can conduct sustainable capital accumulation at the local level that not only "alleviates poverty" but contributes to a restructured aggregate GDP growth.

Poverty Alleviation The orthodoxy sees poverty alleviation in terms of (i) Increasing the calorific intake of the individual. (ii) Providing basic services such as primary education, primary health care, sanitation and drinking water through line departments of the government. (For example the Social Action Programme in Pakistan.) (iii) Provision of Micro Credit on a national scale.

By contrast the Participatory Development paradigm conceives of poverty alleviation essentially as empowerment of the poor: Social mobilisation, consciousness, skill development, income generation. Poverty alleviation in the conventional paradigm signifies a marginal increase in income while subsisting as a marginalized social stratum within the existing structure of power. In the Participatory Development paradigm empowerment involves shifting the location of the poor from the margins of the existing structures of power, into the mainstream of countervailing power. Poverty alleviation implies marginal improvements in economic conditions of the poor. Empowerment implies that the poor acquire greater control over the material conditions that determine their existence.

(c) Decentralization: The conventional paradigm conceives decentralization as a set of formal administrative measures without changing the balance of power at the local level. Participatory Development implies decentralization as the provision of the space for empowerment. Therefore in this paradigm an institutional link is required between local government structures and autonomous organisations of the poor. Decentralization here is not simply government planning through better information of local conditions. It is a new structure of power within which the poor can participate not only in policy decisions that affect their immediate existence, but also at every stage of a local project: Project identification, project design, implementation and monitoring;

The conventional paradigm seeks to identify through local governments, what the World Bank calls the "vulnerabilities" of the poor. This is to enable them to do individual risk management with respect to "free markets". The Participatory Development paradigm suggests that the "vulnerabilities" of the poor lie in the nature of their social relationship with their community, with local elites, with the State and with their physical environment. The issue therefore is not one of "risk management" by the individual but building communities, consciousness and organized collective control over local resources, such as grazing lands, water-courses, check dams and forests. In this context decentralization would not simply mean changing the procedures for government administration. It would involve a new structure of power at the local level where the poor become active subjects of decisions that affect their lives rather than being the objects of, at best paternal policy actions of local government.


The very concept of 'empowerment' of the poor, is problematic in a form of governance typical in South Asia where political support is to some extent acquired and maintained through patron-client relations between the 'governors' and the 'governed'. In this context, disbursement of the State's financial resources and provision of employment opportunities are used as a means of enlarging patronage and power. Even some of those who are heading large government initiated, but formally autonomous poverty programmes, tend to operate them as fiefdoms and form alliances with politicians and the bureaucracy by granting them unwarranted access over resources and employment decisions within their 'demesnes'. Consequently, resources (whether granted by donors or government) apparently provided to create a space of empowerment for the poor, tend to get re-appropriated by the ruling elite. The space of empowerment for the poor tends to get restructured into a more complex space which appears to be empowering the poor while actually reinforcing their dependency through patron-client relations. Some of the government sponsored large NGOs or "Support Organisations" have become subject to this dialectic. While being formally autonomous they are actually subordinate to the ruling elite and its forms of exercising power.

The question that arises is how scaling up of support organisations for Participatory Development is to be achieved without bureaucratizing the support organisations. How can the space for the empowerment of the poor be prevented from being used for the exercise of power by the elite. Perhaps a workable solution to this problem could be to foster the rapid replication of existing community based organisations at the village/mohallah level, through apex organisations in which the CBOs (Community Based Organisations) are represented. At the same time those CBOs which can form autonomous cluster apex organisations on their own should be allowed to do so.


We have argued in this article that poverty occurs when the individual is isolated from the community and is locked into a nexus of power which deprives the poor of their actual and potential economic surplus. The poor face a structure of markets, State and institutions, which discriminate against access of the poor over resources, public services and the process of government decision making. Overcoming poverty is empowerment. It is essentially the process of reintegration of the individual with the community to constitute the basis of countervailing power. Within this alternative framework of organisation and consciousness, the poor are able to undertake autonomous initiatives to improve their economic, social and environmental conditions. Empowerment, we have argued involves changing the location of the poor from being a marginalized stratum of society subsisting as victims, into the main stream of the process of growth and governance decisions, that affect their immediate existence.

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