By Otive Igbuzor, PhD
Founding Executive Director, African Centre for Leadership, Strategy & Development (Centre LSD)
The challenge of poverty is a global one and has attracted the attention of development theorists and practitioners over time. As of today, the challenge remains huge with 750 million people living in extreme poverty struggling to survive on less than $1.90 a day. This goes with lack of access to quality health care, lack of access to quality education, clean water, hygiene, and lack of access to electricity.
Despite efforts by governments, international development partners, civil society organizations and Philanthropists over the years, poverty has persisted in the midst of plenty. This is why the recent Christian Aid poverty report on reimagining paths to human flourishing is timely.
THE CHRISTIAN AID POVERTY REPORT
The 64 paged Christian Aid poverty report released in March 2022 is made up of four chapters preceded by an introduction. The introduction sets the tone for the report by showing that we are living in a world of paradoxes- a world of superabundance and poverty existing side by side. It documents that history demonstrates that where resources, power and opportunity are shared evenly, where states are accountable to their citizens and markets are harnessed to serve the common good, major strides can be made in tackling the scourge of poverty. (page 8). Unfortunately, this has not happened, and poverty is concentrated in some places, especially in Africa, Asia, rural areas, conflict areas and vulnerable groups such as children, women and girls, and persons living with disabilities. Unfortunately, the COVID 19 pandemic that started in early 2020 and climate change have exacerbated the situation through the crystallization of deep structural inequalities within and between countries.
An important aspect of the report is the Christian view of poverty which sees poverty as a broken relationship with God, with each other and with nature; and the concept of human flourishing. Whereas poverty is often described as a lack of resources, choice, power, or self-worth, human flourishing exists in a world of generosity and interdependence.
Chapter one provides evidence that 75 years of Christian Aid work has shown that progress has been made essentially through the agency of the people and broad-based movement for change. Life expectancy has increased. Child and maternal mortality have decreased. More people are being able to afford the necessities of life such as food, education, health care and clean water. There is a dramatic increase in enrolment and completion of primary and secondary education. Women are increasingly claiming their rights with far-reaching changes in areas including political participation, education and reproductive health (page 14). In other words, the world has witnessed more protection from the five giants of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. (page 15). The improvements in the last seventy-five years have been phenomenal. While the global population has tripled since 1950, global income has increased by a factor of ten (Page 22). The number of people living in extreme poverty has more than halved since 1945 from 1.6 billion people to 700 million. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, the region where income poverty is most widespread and deepest, the income poverty incidence has fallen from 60 percent in 1995 to 40 percent today (Page 22). Positive changes have also taken place in governance and civic space in that in 1950, there were roughly five times as many autocracies as democracies but today, there are more democratic governments than autocratic ones and no country holds election now and bar women from voting on account of their sex. (page 23).
Chapter two documents that there is poverty in the midst of plenty as a result of wasted opportunities, persistent inequalities and setbacks and pushbacks. Over the years, extreme poverty has become more concentrated, especially in countries where there is low economic growth, dependence on natural resources and violence and political instability. The COVID-19 pandemic which struck in early 2020 exacerbated the situation. Two billion informal workers were without earning during the lockdown. The pandemic brought massive disruption to schooling and increased gender-based violence. Whereas vaccination has been shown as the most assured way to deal with the pandemic, the manufacture and distribution of vaccines have exposed stark political and economic inequalities (page 30). The report also showed that there is a nexus between extreme inequality and armed conflict. Since 1970, the global economy has expanded fivefold, and trade has grown tenfold but the resources have not been distributed equitably. For instance, the wealthiest 10 percent of people in the world, most of them in the high-income countries consume 20 times more energy per person than the poorest 10 percent. (page 36).
Chapter three advocates for rethinking development. The beginning point is a recognition that people experience poverty in multiple dimensions and therefore poverty can only be tackled by taking an integrated approach that addresses both its underlying and direct causes such as power imbalance. This is to take into cognisance that poverty is multi-dimensional and is characterized by a combination of direct lacks, such as insufficient and insecure income and limited access to essential services; by relational dynamics such as marginalization and mistreatment; and by core experiences, such as disempowerment, struggle and resistance. The second rethink is to recognize people living in poverty as agents of change and treat them as development actors in their own right where they are active citizens claiming their rights and working together for just and sustainable societies to hold states accountable and responsive and make markets to promote shared prosperity. The third rethink is to put people at the center of efforts to end poverty and ensure that both state and market led approaches to development put people at the center. The fourth is to rethink power which is at the root of poverty and promote “power with” rather than “power over” people who are currently disenfranchised. This is to ensure that the poor and excluded are not side-lined, exploited and drowned out by others with more wealth, opportunity and voice. (page 44). This will also involve decolonizing aid and promoting localisation. The fifth is to rethink the idea of development. The argument is that development is not necessarily linear progress from poverty to prosperity with the underlying assumptions about development as an inexorable march towards a western-style society and economy. The point is that development is often experienced as a struggle for justice that has to be renewed as people’s experience of both material and immaterial poverty changes. Finally, the report gives the Christian view of development which is rooted in the belief that people are made in the image and likeness of God and have innate dignity and are called to live in full relationship with God, the whole created order and other people. The full relationship means that each person is able to flourish as a creative, responsible, productive being, both giving and receiving as part of wider society. The approach of the Christian perspective privileges reconciliation over materialism and reconciliation and solidarity over aid. This perspective is in accord with a critique of growth-based approaches that increases planet-destroying carbon emissions and benefits that do not reach the poor. It promotes harmony with nature in contradiction to consumerist tendencies that destroy the environment and lead to unpredictable weather patterns and disharmony with nature.
Chapter four titled Paths to human flourishing gives an indication of new paths to human flourishing in ways that are just and sustainable. As the report points out, “Human flourishing is not simply the absence of poverty but is about the ability to thrive. In the Christian tradition, this is described as life in all its fullness, when we are in the right relationships with each other and the world that sustains us. Whereas poverty is often described as a lack of resources, choice, power or self-worth, human flourishing exists in a world of generosity and interdependence. Money and choice can be important, especially where there is a lack of either, but they are important in order to achieve something more: human growth in terms of creativity, generosity, productivity and reciprocity. In the new path to human flourishing, development will be seen as being more and not having more; as multi-dimensional and not just an economic condition; driven by people with lived experience of poverty and not by those in power; development paths constantly evolving depending on context and not a linear progression from a state of underdevelopment to the social and economic conditions of rich countries; knowledges of historically dispossessed people will create new visions of mutual development and restoration and not through the knowledge that is controlled by power holders; a financial and economic system that redistributes wealth and opportunity and not a financial and economic system that exploits people in poverty and a recognition and response to personal and collective trauma, building of cultural self-esteem, along with agency, dignity and flourishing that is repairing and restoring and not current thinking and practice in development institutions that is shaped by colonial legacies and racial inequality. In human flourishing, dignity, equality, justice and love will reign supreme.
CONCLUSION AND WAY FORWARD
This report has shown clearly that programming on poverty eradication in the last 75 years have brought some progress. But poverty is existing with superabundance. This is partly because some development partners have gone it wrong by not putting people at the centre of efforts to end poverty; dishing out handouts instead of tacking the underlying and direct causes of poverty, and not advocating and implementing pro-poor policies.
There is therefore the need to rethink development, especially in terms of the agency of the people living in poverty; the multi-dimensional nature of poverty; putting people at the centre of efforts to end poverty; promoting power with rather than power over and making each person to flourish as a creative, responsible and productive being giving to and receiving from others.
This report is in accord with the argument that we have always made on how to eradicate poverty. We have argued that several poverty eradication programmes across the world are built on neo-liberal ideological foundations which leave out the structural and systemic causes of poverty and hunger to deal with the symptoms and how to make individuals come out of poverty. We contend that such programmes cannot lead to the eradication of poverty and hunger. Meanwhile, countries that have focused on dealing with the challenge of inequality and promoted the intervention of the state including social protection measures have made significant progress in reducing poverty and hunger. In addition, programming for the eradication of poverty and hunger must simultaneously take place at the local, national and international levels. We conclude that a progressive government approach to eradicating poverty should promote a more nuanced understanding of poverty; participation of the poor; empowerment of the poor; good governance, transparency and accountability; combating gender inequity and children vulnerability; promotion of rights-based approach and pro-poor policies. In all of this, we are hopeful that a world without extreme poverty is possible because of the progress we have made in the last seven decades, the learning that we have received and the dialectics of development that makes a change, not just a possibility but an imperative.