An Inclusive Approach to Safeguarding the Basic Needs of the Poor


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If it were possible to separate public services into a public good aspect and a private good aspect, then government could probably ensure better outcomes for the poor by focusing primarily on the public good aspect.

A public good is both non-rival (the consumption of a unit does not reduce the units available for others) and non-excludable (it is not possible to include some while excluding others from this good). For example an illiteracy free community is a pure public good that demonstrates both non excludable and non rival qualities. It is non-excludable as it is not possible to exclude someone from the benefits of an illiteracy free jurisdiction while including others; and non-rival as one person consuming an illiteracy free jurisdiction does not reduce the stores for others. The private good have both rival and excludable characteristics (the consumption of a unit reduces the availability for others and it is possible to include some while excluding others during consumption). Alternatively a school is a private good - it is rival (there are only a certain number of children you can fit in a classroom) and excludable (you can be excluded if you do not meet certain socio-economic standards).

Assuming that all public services have rival and non-rival, excludable and non-excludable characteristics, it should be conceptually possible to separate the public good aspect and the private good aspect.

The Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) movement has demonstrated that this distinction between public goods and private goods is not only possible but that it also delivers better outcomes for the poor. The CLTS approach encourages government, NGOs and collectives to focus on the eradication of open defecation (non-rival and non-excludable) whilst promoting greater freedom of individuals and markets to innovate in the provision of rival and excludable sanitary hardware. In less than 5 years, more than 90 million people in Bangladesh have gained access to (and are using) latrines as a result of this shift of government and NGOs away from the promotion of latrines towards the creation of a desire to eradicate open defecation.

CARE Bangladesh has also demonstrated that this distinction can be applied to the safeguarding of food sufficiency. In local communities in Rangpur District, the realization that extreme hunger in the ‘monga’ period not only results in agonizing deprivation but also adversely affects landlords (who can’t access labour after the ‘monga’) has led to a collective desire to eradicate extreme hunger. In some communities, all local households decided to invest one handful of rice per week into a common pool to be accessed by those suffering from extreme hunger. In other villages, public areas have been used for the cultivation of indigenous potatoes for the poor. This collective desire to eradicate extreme hunger appears to inspire innovative local approaches to safeguarding the food sufficiency needs of the poor.

This distinction is theoretically possible in sectors such as education and others. In such scenarios, the core role of government would be to focus on safeguarding the public good aspect whilst allowing individuals and markets to allocate the private good aspect in the most efficient manner possible.

Focusing on the provision of pure public goods resists elite capture and creates better incentives for the wealthy to include the poor. Such non-excludable targets are also relatively easy to monitor because ‘a single exception proves the rule’. As demonstrated in the sanitation sector in India, central and state governments can potentially leverage this through the provision of performance based funding to local governments (i.e. Nirmal Gram Puraskar , Sant Gadge Baba program ).


Mark Ellery

Water and Sanitation Specialist

Join the Conversation

Bob Spencer
November 18, 2009

The concepts that you discuss in this blog might be more important than many acknowledge. The perception that if one person gains, then that gain takes directly from everyone else has produced many barriers to development throughout the world; nevertheless, many places have learned the skills to manage that divisive perception. The examples you provide offer encouragement in this regard.

I am not sure that this is an appropriate way to share an article that Armando Geller and I wrote, but since I do not have your direct contact information, here is our article that discusses these issues as they have applied to Afghanistan.…

I hope that your essential work can be replicated repeatedly.

Thank you,
Bob Spencer

November 25, 2009

Dear Bob,
Thanks for drawing the important connection between this economists logic and a development logic for dealing with the "Image of Limited Good”. I completely agree with your argument that deprivation cuts both ways when both the poor (or oppressed) and the rich (or powerful) are connected together in a community that is characterised by a real or perceived scarcity of natural or social resources.

Within such a framework of belief, I think that it is possible to safeguard the basic needs of the poor;
a) without targeting the poor (and falling foul of the dependency theorists), or
(b) excluding the rich (and falling foul of their incentives by externalizing them),
if government & civil society can create social norms (primarily at the level of the local collective) that are diverse and open enough to view the safeguarding of the sufficiency needs of the poor as synonomous with protecting the humanity of the rich i.e. re-cast this as win/win rather than win/lose.

Kind Regards, Mark

Bob Spencer
November 26, 2009

I agree with your reply. Your example of landlords needing to feed the workers can be expanded to a condition of needing increased skills and production from a workforce that can then require better pay, etc with their increased value.

Thank you and especially best wishes for your important work!


Asutosh Satpathy
December 02, 2009

I totally agree and the approach needs to be highlighted at the level of public policy and development initiative in South Asia. It is very much relevant as public good is for one and all, where every body gains and no one loses. Basic needs like food, health, education, shelter and security should be encompassed within the purview of public good.
Asutosh Satpathy