Power Plays

Oxfam's Duncan Green explains why ending inequality is more effective than distributing aid

At the Asian launch of the second edition of his book From Poverty To Power last week in Bangkok, Oxfam's senior strategic adviser Duncan Green opened with his British sense of humour.

"The book was first published in 2008, any author knows that five years is a nightmare, because you say what you think about the world, you publish the book, and then you're stuck, the world changes and you are proved wrong. There is nowhere to hide. So this is the inevitable risk in writing exercises."

But Green is happy to know he is safe. "When I came to revise book, I said OK, I must find some references to the financial crisis to prove that I predicted it, otherwise it would be a shame. So I went through it and I did find a reference to 'storm clouds' in the global economy, I predicted this enormous financial crisis with one [phrase], that's good enough for me."

The first edition of From Poverty To Power was an intense compilation of cases and research from across the world, showing successful initiatives that have helped reduce poverty in many countries. The core message was "active citizenship and effective states are the driving forces of development". By analysing that poverty is much more characterised by feelings of volatility, vulnerability and powerlessness rather than whether we have 50 baht or 100 baht a day, Green argued for a redistribution of power rather than traditional aid to break the cycle of poverty and inequality.

The analysis of the relationship between poverty and inequality is not new. The value of this book lies in the attempt to provoke action.

Using knowledge acquired from 25 years of researching and writing about reducing poverty and combating injustice, Green has shown different ways in which poverty can be fought by organised and collective action.

In the past five years, Green has observed and researched the human impacts of the three big shocks happened since 2008: the global financial crisis, the food price hike and the Arab Spring. They all appear in the second edition.

While people may feel pessimistic about today's gloomy world, Green is one of those who perceive opportunities through these shocks, with the exception of the climate change challenge.

"Because national is primary, global is secondary, but environment boundaries don't allow a national solution. Some people [say] it may be the biggest collective action in history. But I don't think we have that solution yet. For many years we will be put in very severe global warming. It won't kill everyone, but will waste massive lives of poor at the bottom of the power pyramid. That's what we will face. I am very pessimistic about the next 50 years," he said. "But it's coming, we've got to be ready for it."

How did the events after 2008, the financial crisis, food crisis and Arab Spring, echo your analysis in From Poverty To Power?

If you look at the response to those massive shocks, whether countries wallow badly has depended heavily on whether the government is effective. Whether poor people suffer depends heavily on whether they are organised and whether civil society defends them. In some ways, the shocks have been global, but the response has been national and just testified to the idea that development is mainly about the relations between citizens and states.

Can the proposals you gave five years ago be applied to today's situation? I think so. My general conclusion was the idea that development is about redistributing power, assets, opportunities and rights. What we saw in the financial crisis and the food price crisis was mainly some negative redistribution has made the inequality worse. A good message in the recent years is that a number of the poorest countries have started to reduce their high level of inequality, using good social policies, getting inflation down, spending money on social protection. So there are ways to tackle inequality and lots of governments are doing it. We just need to make more governments do it.

Can you give a specific successful example?

The best example comes from Bolivia in South America, where a group of indigenous people called Chiquitano were basically slaves in the 1980s, they worked on feudal farms and had to get the landowners' permission to leave the farms. They organised and struggled for many years until getting involved in formal politics. They acquired a sense of identity, collective power. After the first indigenous president in the country was elected in 2006, quite effective land reform was brought in; Chiquitano people got a million hectares of land.

The combination _ citizens organising and the state which was willing to give out land _ worked together and really changed people's lives.

In East Asia, what we see is a sequence where an effective state in the earlier years is often very autocratic, but as the middle class grows, society becomes more complex, then the demands for citizen's rights grow too, it begins the transition to democracy, like South Korea for example. What is interesting to me is how early in a country's progression can you actually have functioning voices and functioning citizenship.

Can you really have both at the same time: active citizens and a strong government?

What about Europe? Europe has very strong and influential states, they have a very high level of spending, but also it has very active civil movements. The other point I will make still comes back to what we think development is about.

If we think development is only about GDP per capita, there are already strong debates on the Asian development style where they postpone citizenship until the country gets rich, like South Korea. But if you agree development is also about a sense of dignity, a sense of your voice counting, a sense that development is freedom to be and to do, then you must want citizenship much earlier, as early as possible.

Your suggestions on redistribution have usually been labelled "radical", what does that mean?

Well, there are two kinds of redistribution. If we live in a finite eco-system, finite environmental system, then the distribution really matters, how you divide the cake, how many people there are, all really matter. But also, the underlying challenge of development is to redistribute power. In a house, redistribution exists between men and women, between adults and children. Within communities and between communities, in nations and between nations, that's kind of the underlying story of power and how we allocate it. And I suppose that the most important kind of redistribution is empowerment.

For countries where people have few political rights and weak strength, how can your theory help?

Social changes often happen in the hearts of people. When people acquire a sense of their own value, and a sense their voices should be listened to, progress can begin, in any society. It often begins in communities through religious institutions and social institutions. People start to acquire confidence, in time that will change the way people relate to each other and, eventually, political relations. In situations like typhoons and earthquakes people just need help, but there is also a way of helping people acquire dignity, even in a country where freedom is suppressed and limited, you can still work.

For this reason, you argue that "politics and power" should be a part of a non-government organisation's work. However, if an NGO focuses on political empowerment, does it put itself in danger? Shouldn't NGOs be away from politics or at least be neutral?

I don't think NGOs should be neutral; we are on the side of poor people. But we are impartial, we don't support any one political party, it is a line we need be very clear on _ we don't go into stuff like picking side and internal battles. And you meet the distinction in different countries, in China for example, I don't think it is the role of an international NGO to get involved in a party for or against another party, but you can certainly do work around labour rights, health, education and poverty, and all of those kinds of work involve building people's confidence and their ability to solve problems, to organise. This is not party politics.

When I say that we should be political, I mean first of all we should be aware of politics, but how we engage in politics will depend on the context, if we engage in the wrong way, we will be thrown out. We should see the space and work within it, where you may push the boundaries and see what happens.

How is climate change affecting the picture of global poverty and inequality?

I just returned from the Philippines. On Mindanao island, we are trying to help poor people improve their incomes by growing rubber, but they have to develop new techniques and new ways of water management because the seasons are becoming more erratic. We have seen that cross the world, especially for farmers. But if you look at the climate change modelling which suggests big changes will happen, a lot of the changes will be in tropical parts of the world, where most poor people live, so we think climate change absolutely is a development issue.

About the author

Writer: Zhang Qi