This post is written on the hoof, dashing between presentations, so please pardon the rough edges. Yesterday I shared a platform with Marcelo Giugale, the World Bank’s Africa Director for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (right). We were coming from very different places, some might say different planets, which is always stimulating. I did my standard power and politics spiel, focusing on multidimensional poverty, inequality and complex systems and their implications for aid agencies (more on that to follow). Marcelo responded by saying that this was all a massive distraction, and that we should keep our eyes on the prize of ending poverty. And on this he was relentlessly upbeat, optimistic and pretty apolitical. ‘We can end poverty without blasting the system… we have the technology’ he said. Marcelo argued that six key developments have made this possible:
- We will know the poor by name, individually. Thanks to a combination of technology and the widespread introduction of cash transfers, governments are increasingly registering all their poor citizens (the mega example being India’s biometric identity card programme – below, left). This allows them to scale up transfers rapidly in the event of shocks.
- We can determine impact, not just outcome. He defined impact as ‘that subset of outcomes that would not have happened without the intervention’ and pointed out that many of them are negative. Eg aid agencies give aid for education, so the education budget is redirected to something less worthwhile.
- ‘The time has come to link people with their natural resources.’ The World Bank seems to be getting behind the ‘doing an Alaska’ proposal to distribute natural resource revenues straight into the hands of poor people. Interestingly their power analysis suggests that the most likely way to overcome domestic political barriers (politicians not wanting to give up their slush funds) is by persuading ‘desperate oppositions’ who do not expect to win to adopt it as a last throw of the dice. Something a bit similar led to the introduction of India’s renowned Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. They think early adopters will ease the political logjam and increase pressure on neighbouring countries to follow suit.
- Equity not Equality: the way to steer a course through the politically polarized terrain of inequality is to focus on children. Hence the Bank’s new Human Opportunity Index, which asks ‘how important are a child’s personal circumstances over which he/she has no control or responsibility (e.g., gender, family income, skin colour, birthplace, etc), to his/her probability to access the services without which he/she can’t succeed in life (things like completing 6th grade on time or having potable water in the first two years of life)?’ I’m not sure about this – is it a way to get at the real causes of inequality, breaking the transmission between generations that has grown so much more rigid in recent years. Or is it a convenient way of dodging politically contentious issues of distribution and redistribution, kicking the can down the road with a new version of the kind of ‘equality of opportunity’ approach (aka the American Dream), which I thought we had left behind?
- Focus on non-cognitive skills, such as punctuality, respect and dedication to understand the reasons for success. Why? Because they are important and becoming more measurable.
- A proliferating set of ‘standards’ for public expenditure will help governments to introduce results-based payments and budgeting.