Pro-poor policies work

Pro-industrial policies promote industry, pro-health policy promote health, pro-education policies promote education. So it is natural that India’s pro-poor policies — and let’s be very clear that every single one of India’s economic policies have been pro-poor — work and promote poverty and the number of poor keeps on going up. The absolute number keeps growing. What about the percentage? It does keep improving.

So what’s the latest on poverty in India from the World Bank? It is reported that the WB released some study which talks about the changes in the recent past. Good news or bad new? Depends on who is reporting the study. Sort of like assessing beauty — which we all know lies in the eyes of the beholder. Rediff says “India has fewer poor people: World Bank“. IBNLive reads the same report and says “Number of poor in India has gone up: World Bank.” (Thanks Dr A for the links.)

How’s that for objective reporting?

Global Poverty and the Cell Phone

A magazine article in the New York Times of April 13th has the rather mistaken and misleading title “Can the Cell Phone End Global Poverty?” (Hat tip: Abhishek Sarda). The article title is misleading because it doesn’t even remotely attempt to answer that question. It is instead about what is called a “human-behavior researcher” or “user anthropologist,” in this case someone who works for Nokia and essentially tries to figure out how people actually use their phones and thus how phone companies should design phones for greater usability.
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Reality Disconnect

There appears to be a thriving cottage industry which is primarily engaged in churning out shallow pieces of journalistic garbage. The pieces detail a particular person’s or family’s struggles and then juxtapose it in some dramatic way with perceived overall prosperity. The implicit argument is that there is an immense injustice being perpetrated against the poor, that it is all the fault of those who are not poor, and that the poor have absolutely no responsibility for the miserable state of affairs. These articles reveal a lot without intending to. They plainly state that the author did not quite learn the lesson that stared them in the face when they were investigating the story.
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The Sustaining of Poverty

The Oxfam America site asks In a World of Abundance, Why Hunger? (July 8, 2002)

Poverty and hunger are the world’s greatest challenges

  • 1.2 billion people–one out of five–live on less than $1 a day.
  • More than 800 million people are hungry, including 31 million in the United States.
  • Every day, 24,000 people die from hunger and other preventable causes. One billion people do not have adequate shelter, and 2.4 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation. More than 1 billion people in developing countries lack access to safe water.
  • Yet enough food is produced in the world to feed everyone.
  • Overpopulation is not the main cause of hunger. In Japan, a densely populated country with 125 million people, hunger is rare compared to other countries. Many larger countries with fewer people, like Peru and Sudan, have much higher rates of hunger.
  • The problem is inequality in access to education, resources, and power.

I have a slightly different take on the question of poverty and hunger. I think that ultimately, without the active participation of the world’s poor, poverty cannot be sustained. I believe that we have been looking for the solution to poverty everywhere else except at the source of poverty. The source of poverty is the poor. The poor sustain poverty.

I am not absolving anyone of blame by locating the source of sustained poverty among the poor. On the contrary, the non-poor also actively participate in helping the poor sustain poverty. But in the ultimate analysis, the poor have the power to kill poverty. How to awaken them to that realization is the challenge that those who wish to see poverty eradicated face.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme

In a land where reportedly every generalization is trivially true, one generalization holds non-trivially and with overwhelming force. It is this: Indian governments are pro-poor. Every policy that any government ever espouses, fundamentally it always is pro-poor, irrespective of any minor variations such as pro-market or pro-planning or pro-industrialization or pro-globalization or pro-self sufficiency or whathaveyou.

My claim is that this pro-poor policy is not mere rhetoric. The policy works and how. I argue that all other policies have not yielded their expected results but the pro-poor policies have delivered as could be reasonably expected.

Pro-industrialization policies are expected to lead to an increase in industrialization. If India ever had such policies, they have had only marginal success because India is arguably not an industrial economy. Pro-poor policies are expected to promote the number of the poor, and there has been a monotonic increase in the number of poor in India.

The percentage of people below the poverty line is estimated to be around 25. That is, India has about 250 million people who are so unimaginably poor that they can’t cross the poverty line that is set way below what can be considered necessary for a human existence. Around 33 million were added to that role in 2001-02 alone For comparison, that is more than the entire population of Canada in 2001 (30 million).

Let’s put the number of the abjectly poor in perspective. Consider the number of people below the poverty line at the time of India’s independence. We had about 350 million people then. Assuming that 50 percent of them were below the poverty line then, there were 175 million abjectly poor people then. Now, about 57 years later, we have 250 million abjectly poor people. There has been an increase of 75 million in the ranks of the abjectly poor in the nearly six decades of pro-poor policies..

India’s pro-poor policies have succeeded in increasing the number of poor in the past and while past performance is not a guarantee of future results, the most probable outcome of current pro-poor policies can be expected to lead to increase in the number of the poor. The “Employment Guarantee Scheme” (introduced by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill) is pro-poor and the result will be as before.
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Culture Matters

Economists conventionally list land, labor and capital as the three factors of production. If combined appropriately using the right technology, stuff is produced. This produced stuff is then the total income. Productive efficiency is important of course for a society to be economically secure. Then there is the matter of equity. You have to distribute the stuff produced equitably. Productive efficiency and distributive equity must be part of a healthy economy. But then if sufficient factors of production exist and the technology is also available, then how does one account for the failure of some societies in overcoming poverty?

I believe that the choices that society makes depends on the cultural and institutional capital of the society. As much as land, labor, capital, and technology matter, the social capital — that is the cultural norms and values and institutions — matter fundamentally.

This line of thought was prompted by a report in the New York Times. It was the story of Shazia Khalid who was raped and then persecuted by all and sundry for her “sin.” This happened in Pakistan. The culture of that place is such that the victim is blamed. Rape is seen as a insult to the family honor which can only be restored by killing the woman who was violated.

The values of the society matter more than the availability of PCs and the ability to surf the internet and get neat stuff off the world wide web. Third world under-developed societies need a change of values desperately if they are to get out of the cycle of poverty. Unfortunately, values are endogenous and they can only change with great difficulty. They cannot be imposed externally any more than “democracy” be imposed externally as the US is ostensibly attempting to do in Iraq.

The sense of fairness and justice is, in my opinion, the major determinant of how developed a society is. And in some sense, development is the basis for economic development. Until a society has justice and fairness as its core values, it cannot get beyond a Hobbesian existence.

The Poor as a Fertile Source of Slave Labor

I have never been able to shake off the conviction that there must be a very good economic reason for why there are so many poor people around the world. You may say that I am crazy to connect what apparently are totally distinct facts about the world but bear with me for a bit while I lay out my argument.

I argue that the large pool of poor people serve as a reservoir of extremely cheap labor which helps the rich. The rich have control and are powerful. They could choose to bring about the end of poverty. But they don’t because absent grinding poverty, the cheap labor will dry up and lead to less favorable outcomes for the rich and powerful. I hasten to add that the rich and the powerful cannot be distinguished by the color of their skin, racial origin, or nationality. The rich and the powerful exist in rich and poor countries alike. Their interests are aligned irrespective of which part of the world they live in.

Thus the rich in India would advocate policies that will ensure that the reservoir of poor Indians never run dry. Empirical evidence is plenty. There were only about 150 million abjectly poor people in India around 1950. Today, about 50 years later, India has about 300 million abjectly poor people. Mind you, this is after implementing every conceivable form of “pro-poor” policies. Not a single policy maker would ever claim that their policies were anti-poor. They all are for the benefit of the poor. And yet, the numbers of the poor continually increase. I claim that the policies are “more-poor” rather than “pro-poor”.

One such policy now making the rounds is the so-called “Employment Guarantee Scheme” which I mentioned here last time. In my considered opinion, this would raise the level of poverty in India and increase the number of poor. How this will come about, I will address later. For now, I will move to the utility of the poor. They are good for slave labor.

Slavery is an ancient institution. Mention slavery and you conjure up images of Africa. In the past, Africa paid the price and the benefits went to Europeans, both in the Old World as well as the New World. The rich and powerful, both in Africa and in Europe (and their American colonies), gained immensely. Let’s not forget that African slavery was not an entirely European-driven phenomenon. Africans were involved in it as much as anyone else. Africans managed the supply-side while Europeans the demand-side.

For guns and other European manufactures, powerful Africans would conduct raiding parties with guns and cavalry. Here is a heart-breaking account by James Richardson writing about it around 1850:

A cry was raised early this morning: “The Sarkee is coming!” … It turned out that a string of captives, fruits of the razzia, was coming in. There cannot be in the world … a more appalling spectacle than this. My head swam as I gazed. A single horseman rode first … and the wretched captives followed him as if they had been used to this condition all their lives. Here were naked little boys, running alone, perhaps thinking themselves upon a holiday; near at hand dragged mothers with babes at their breasts; girls of various ages, some almost ripened into womanhood, others still infantile; old men bent two-double with age, their trembling chins verging towards the ground, their poor old heads covered with white wool; aged women tottering along, leaning upon long staffs, mere living skeletons … then followed the stout young men, ironed neck to neck! This was the first installment of the black bullion of Central Africa; and as the wretched procession huddled through the gateways … the creditors of the Sarkee looked gloatingly on through lazy eyes, and calculated on speedy payment.

Only humans are capable of inhumanity. It is part of human nature and I don’t think that it can be eradicated. It takes different forms and shapes depending on the fashion of the era and the compulsions of the age. The compulsions range from monotheistic madness (the Crusades, the Islamic hordes destroying peaceful non-Muslims) to nationalism (the Nazis slaughtering Jews, the Americans carpet-bombing countries, the Belgians killing millions in the Congo, the Pakistani army slaughtering between 3 and 6 million other Pakistanis, … the list goes on) to natural resources (too many to mention but Iraq is the lastest example.)

{To be concluded tomorrow.}