Why is life so much better, for example, if you are among the few born in the northernmost region of Sudan, as opposed to the east, west, south or centre excluding Khartoum? Why do indigenous peoples all around the world have so much lower a life expectancy than other citizens – from 13 years lower in Guatemala and seven in Canada, to 20 years lower in Nepal and Australia? Why are members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in India twice as likely to live in income poverty?
Why do children with disabilities make up a third of those who don’t go to school, so that the global literacy rate for all those with disability may be only 3% – and 1% for women with disabilities? Why, indeed, are two thirds of the world’s illiterate adults women, and why has this failed to change over decades?
Turning from dimensions of inequality to policy measures, why does it seem to damage your chances to be born in a lower-tax US state?
Finally, why is that we lack even the data to see, never mind to understand, some of the limitations on the lives of far too many children born today? Being counted matters. From voting to accessing health care, it’s generally true that if your name isn’t down, you’re not coming in. And where policymakers are unaware of people, their needs are unlikely to be met.
Where people are uncounted it tends to reflect and compound a lack of power – whether because social service provision is based on census returns, for example, or because knowledge of outcomes is needed to drive policy responses, or because political power is derived from existence in official documents.
This blog is intended to address the development debates around these problems and their causes, and the state of knowledge about policy responses, recognising that this is a time of some flux. Perceptions of what matters for development are changing, the development agenda is changing, and the geography of poverty and inequality is changing.
To be clear, this is not a blog about what ‘we’ can do to help some helpless ‘them’. Nor is it a Save the Children blog exactly – these are my thoughts, or at least in some broad sense this is all my fault, and the usual disclaimer applies (with thanks to the wonderful precedent set by Duncan Green at Oxfam).
The development narrative no longer solely focuses on reducing extreme income poverty, to be addressed primarily by financial flows from rich countries to poor ones.
Four main changes have occurred, or are occurring. First, the location of poverty has shifted: rather than ‘poor people in poor countries’, the majority of people in extreme income poverty now live in countries designated by the World Bank as middle income. (Do we count this poverty as the same, better or worse, than that in low income countries?)
Second, the underlying understanding of poverty has shifted: while extreme income poverty continues to be used as a form of shorthand, and reflects the major data effort, poverty is now widely understood as multi-dimensional, covering many aspects of people’s power to enjoy a good life, and to determine their own future. (When will data catch up, to be able to count in these multiple dimensions?)
Third, there is increasing recognition of the centrality of national level policy decisions and of underlying structures in delivering development. Whether we look at corruption, tax dodging and the massive (uncounted) illicit financial outflows they create, or broader questions of a lack of transparency and political accountability, or the central importance of economic activity through trade and investment (á la David Cameron’s golden thread), or the challenges of financial regulation, it is clear that while aid is vital it is far from the whole puzzle.
Fourth, the urgency of sustainability has become uncontroversial. In these austere times the political emphasis on the constraints posed by planetary boundaries may not feel as powerful, but no-one seriously disputes their importance any more (although our ability to measure them all remains less than perfect).
Among other things, I hope this blog will help to examine the implications of these changes, and to consider how they will play out over the course of the next few years – not least in the process to identify a post-2015 successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals.
We can already be fairly clear about some of the implications. Inequality will continue its move from being a ‘political’ issue, to one which is treated primarily technically and in the centre ground – while remaining contentious for some. Natural resource constraints will become ubiquitous in discussions of development approach over any but the shortest time horizon.
The complexity of poverty will provide all sorts of challenges, and the tendency to use simpler but weaker measures will persist. At the same time though, the pressure will build to generate more and higher-quality data to understand this complexity and have policy respond to it. In combination with this, the pressure will build from donors and from civil society for greater transparency of governments and of the private sector. The ‘big data’ agenda seems set fair for the next few years at least, and there are opportunities for great innovation and progress here.
If a dimension of development, or a given community, is not being counted, progress is almost inevitably hamstrung. The better we understand the distribution of multi-dimensional poverty, and what drives it, the better we can prevent the harm inequality does to individuals, to communities and to societies. I hope this blog can become a space where knowledge and understanding are shared, tested, developed…