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Make Inequality History? What Would Change if We Focused on Inequality Rather than Poverty?

Duncan Green's picture

Last week I spoke at a Brussels conference on inequality, organized by the Belgian NGO coalition 11.11.11. Inequality is flavour of the month right now, showing surprising staying power within the post-2015 process and elsewhere. Inequality gabfests usually involve violent agreement that inequality is indeed a Bad Thing, lots of evidence for why this is the case, and polite disagreements on what inequality we should target first – often along the lines of ‘because inequality is really important, we should all work on X’, where X just happens to be the thing that person works on anyway. A more retro variant involves ritual combat between supporters of equality of opportunity (aka American Dream) v equality of outcome (Socialist Paradise). Cynical, moi?

But in Brussels, I had a more difficult, but interesting job: what, if anything, should we do differently if our focus is on inequality rather than, say ‘getting to zero’ on poverty? So let’s imagine. It’s 2015, the UN has signed off on a shift in focus from poverty (MDGs) to inequality (post-2015). True, the commitment is a little vague (hey, this is the UN we’re talking about), but now NGOs and official donors are charged with the task of turning this into a viable campaign and lobbying exercise. What might a Make Inequality History campaign look like?

Is Working on Governance Reform Like the Sport of Curling?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

A few weeks ago, I attended an internal seminar here at the World Bank. Topic: the governance challenges in a big, complex, not -aid -dependent, and deeply corrupt country.  The team working on governance in the country wanted to present ideas to the broader community in the Bank and receive feedback. It was a good and lively discussion, and you will forgive me for not going into the details.  But something happened that I wanted to bring to broader attention. After the country team had presented the work they were doing, one of those asked to lead the comments was my esteemed colleague, Nick Manning, one of the most experienced public sector governance advisers anywhere.

Nick opened his remarks with this arresting image. I paraphrase him thus: Some of you I’m sure are aware of the Olympic sport of curling. You see these people with a broom sweeping the ice in front of a ball. Those who do this swear that sweeping the ice makes a difference. So, maybe what we do in these situations is like sweeping the ice to shape the path of the ball that is rolling down, and we hope it makes a difference.

The Rise of Brazil’s 'Marqueteiros'

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Did you know that Brazil is now exporting political campaign strategists? According to a fascinating profile published in the New York Times, Brazil’s top political campaign consultants are now working on elections in other Latin American countries, and they are even beginning to venture into Africa. Written by Simon Romero, the profile focuses on the work of Joao Santana, apparently a colorful and controversial figure. Key quotes:

In the past year, Mr Santana, a hypercompetitive 60-year-old former lyricist for an avant-garde rock band who refers to elections as “almost bloody combat,” accomplished the uncommon feat of simultaneously running winning campaigns for three presidents: Danilo Medina, in the Dominican Republic; Hugo Chavez, in Venezuela; and Jose Eduardo dos Santos, in Angola.

He [Mr Santana, that is] described politics as an activity involving theater, music and even religious rites since “primordial” times, and, with a dash of humor, said about his field, “Just as psychoanalysts help people to have sex without guilt, we help people to like politics without remorse.’

Mortal Combat in the Public Sphere

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The nature of the relationship between (elected) political leaders and the elite reporters dedicated to reporting on their activities is insufficiently studied, and its importance is inadequately appreciated. Yet that relationship says a lot about a political community, particularly:

  • the public political culture;
  • the nature of press/government relations generally;
  • some of the strengths of the governance system in that country;
  • some of the pathologies bedeviling governance in that country, and so on.

The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World. Synthesis > Novelty in a Big New UN Report

Duncan Green's picture

Of the big reports that spew forth from the multilateral system, some break new ground in terms of research or narratives, while others usefully recap the latest thinking on a given issue. The recently launched 2013 Human Development Report, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, falls into the latter category, pulling together the evidence for a tectonic North-South shift in global economic and political affairs, summarizing new thinking on inequality, South in the North etc and asking what happens next. If you’re currently sunk in the depths of Europessimism or US political stalemate, you may find such an upbeat story refreshing (or even disturbing). You can read the exec sum online, but it doesn’t seem to allow you to cut and paste (v annoying for lazy bloggers like me).

Some useful numbers to demonstrate the extent of the shift: From 1980 to now, developing countries’ share of global GDP rose from 33% to 45%, their share of world goods trade from 25% to 45%, and South-South trade as a % of the world total rose from 8% to 26%.

How to Build Local Government Accountability in South Africa? A Conversation with Partners

Duncan Green's picture

This is what a good day visiting an Oxfam programme looks like. I skim the interwebs (and this blog) to put together some thoughts on a given issue from our experience or what others are writing (‘the literature’). Then sit down with local Oxfamistas and partner organizations (who are usually closer to the grassroots than we are) to compare these bullet points with their reality. Last Friday, it was ‘how can NGOs build the accountability of local government.’ My ten minutes covered:

How Can South Africa Promote Citizenship and Accountability? A Conversation with Some State Planners

Duncan Green's picture

How can states best promote active citizenship, in particular to improve the quality and accountability of state services such as education? This was the topic of a great two hour brainstorm with half a dozen very bright sparks from the secretariat of South Africa’s National Planning Commission yesterday. The NPC, chaired by Trevor Manuel (who gave us a great plug for the South African edition of From Poverty to Power) recently brought out the National Development Plan 2030 (right), and the secretariat is involved with trying to turn it into reality.

I kicked off with some thoughts which should be familiar to regular readers of this blog: the importance of implementation gaps, the shift in working on accountability from supply side (seminars for state officials) to demand side (promote citizen watchdogs to hold the state to account) and the challenge from the ODI-led Africa Power and Politics Programme that accountability work needs to break free of such supply/demand thinking and pursue ‘collective problem-solving in fragmented societies hampered by low levels of trust’, which seems a pretty good description of South Africa, according to the NPC. I gave the example of the Tajikistan Water Supply and Sanitation Network as an example of how this can be done through ‘convening and brokering’.

Once I shut up, it got more interesting (funny how often that happens). Some of the most interesting questions (and responses from me and others).

Should the Poor Depend on Heroes?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Recent events bring to mind a phenomenon we witness once in a while: a national leader dies and many citizens of that country - particularly the poor  - grieve on an operatic scale. They mass onto the streets and weep openly and uncontrollably. They will not be consoled. It is a though the bottom had fallen out of their lives totally and completely.

To outsiders, these are moving scenes. No matter your views about the leader that has just died you cannot but be struck by the vastness and genuineness of the reaction of the masses of the people. The departed leader must surely have done something to earn such adoration.  But you also wonder if the weeping masses believe the leader is irreplaceable; that what he contributed to their lives cannot be done by anybody else; that, above all, he was a fluke, an accident.  Do they ask: who is going to look after us now? You even hear some of them say: We have lost our father.

These scenes of monumental grieving remind me of the famous scene in the Bertolt Brecht play 'The Life of Galileo'. Here is the key exchange:

What if We Allocated Aid $ Based on How Much Damage Something Does, and Whether We Know How to Fix It?

Duncan Green's picture

I usually criticize development wonks who come up with yet another ‘if I ruled the world’ plan for reforming everything without thinking through the issues of politics, power and incentives that will determine which (if any) of their grand schemes gets adopted. But it’s been a hard week, and today I’m taking time out from the grind of political realism to rethink aid policy.

Call it a thought experiment. Suppose we started with a blank sheet of paper, and decided which issues to spend aid money on based on two criteria – a) how much death and destruction does a given issue cause in developing countries, and b) do the rich countries actually know how to reduce the damage? That second bit is important – remember Charles Kenny’s book ‘Getting Better‘, which argues powerfully that since we understand how to improve health and education much better than how to generate jobs and growth, aid should concentrate on the former.


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