Changing the way we think about poverty and development | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 21, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:23 PM, February 21, 2019

Changing the way we think about poverty and development

There are some words in the popular lexicon that we hear and read about every day but very few appreciate or understand the depth of these words. “Development” and “poverty” are two good examples. Ask anyone what these words mean to them and the answer you'll hear will most likely be very simplistic—for example, development being equated to high GDP growth. I got a similar answer when I asked a friend what his definition of “poverty” was. He said: “Being so poor that they cannot afford basic amenities.”

These definitions are not completely wrong but they are certainly reductionist. While we may think we “understand” what these words—which are now commonplace in our academic and political discourse—mean, very few of us actually do. The definition of both development and poverty has significantly evolved over time as respected economists like Amartya Sen, who were astute enough to see through the earlier parochial views of these concepts, have continued to broaden our understanding of what they entail.

But we seem to be suffering from tunnel vision and our interpretation of these concepts remains one-dimensional. Development is much more than higher GDP growth, and being unable to afford basic amenities is only part of what poverty means. Things like political rights, freedom of speech and social opportunities are essential elements that we unfortunately tend to ignore when we talk about development or poverty.

The World Bank, in a recent report, revealed a startling finding. The international organisation found that of the world's 736 million extreme poor in 2015, half that population, that is 368 million people, lived in just five countries: India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. Three percent of the extreme poor population globally were found to be in Bangladesh, i.e. 16.2 million people in the country have a daily income of less than USD 1.90.

This is a prime example of why thinking about development simply in terms of GDP per capita is misleading. Because the fact that Bangladesh, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, accounts for such a huge chunk of the global extreme poor population almost sounds like a paradox—except it's not. When you look at “development” from the perspective of non-monetary aspects such as access to quality education and healthcare, electricity, quality food, clean water and sanitation, and political and other basic freedoms—all of which are essential to avail economic opportunities and for the realisation of human potential—the coexistence of GDP growth and extreme poverty doesn't seem much like a contradiction. What it does point to, however, is that the conditions necessary for human development of millions of people are sorely missing. It also indicates that there is stark disparity in the distribution of wealth given rising income inequality amidst tremendous growth, and the need to revamp the current development model that is clearly not benefiting everyone.

Which means that our fixation with 7-plus GDP growth rates stems from a very narrow outlook of development. Similarly, it is flawed to think about poverty from the standpoint of income alone, which is what we tend to do; tackling poverty requires more than just raising income levels.

The progress we have made in poverty reduction, food security, access to education and healthcare, etc, in the decades since independence is nothing short of remarkable. But it is equally important to acknowledge the fact that we have a long way to go before we can effectively tackle multidimensional poverty which means taking into account education, health and living standards. One of the problems is that we get too bogged down in easy-to-understand “average figures” which only give us a general picture—essentially masking the harsh realities that many in far-flung places across the country are living in. High average figures relating to “GDP per capita” and “overall access to electricity and education” may sound appealing, but they don't shed light on striking urban-rural disparities. The likeness for “average figures” is understandable; the urge to know where one stands with respect to the “average” income or years of schooling is tempting. But average figures don't always tell the whole story.

For example, the Bangladesh Power Development Board in July last year said that around 90 percent of people in the country now have access to electricity—a great achievement by all means—but this hardly tells us anything about access to electricity in rural areas where more than 25 percent of the population still rely on fuelwood and kerosene for energy. Similarly, the fact that we have achieved near universal net primary enrollment with around 98 percent primary-school-aged children enrolled in school doesn't reveal much about the quality of education which disproportionately affects children from poverty-stricken families. A USAID-funded study by Save the Children last spring found that 44 percent of students who complete the first grade cannot read their first word and 27 percent of third grade students are unable to read with comprehension. Performance in basic English, math and Bangla has been found to be especially weak among poor students. Another example of the problem with an overreliance on average numbers comes to light when you compare per-capita income and income share amongst the population. Whereas our per-capita income rose to USD 1,751 in 2017-18 from USD 1,610 in 2016-17, the income share of the poorest five percent fell from 0.78 percent (in 2010) to 0.23 percent (in 2016) of overall income with the richest five percent's share going up to 27.89 percent from 24.61 percent during the same time period (BBS). So while the “average” individual income may paint a rosy picture, concentration of income at the top tells a different story.

Beyond changing our outlook towards poverty and development, there is no alternative to increasing investment in education and health—which has shrunk as a share of our national budget and is now among the lowest in South Asia. And while social safety net programmes—a hallmark of the Bangladesh government's strategy to alleviate poverty—have led to increased school enrolment and attendance, especially among girls in secondary schools, employment generation, provision of food during crisis, etc., studies have shown that poor targeting, inefficiency and leakage lead to these programmes never reaching many of the non-poor. In 2010, for instance, only a third of eligible beneficiaries participated in at least one social safety programme, and of those, 60 percent were non-poor. The involvement of some 20 ministries means that there is duplication between programme objectives and beneficiaries. While there is no denying that social safety net programmes have transformed countless lives, we need to do a better job of reaching more of the extreme poor who are currently left out.

But even achieving all of the above won't be enough if we fail to address the weaknesses of our public institutions which are paralysed because of extreme politicisation and a lack of transparency and accountability. Even if the poor somehow successfully escape the vicious trap of poverty, we can hardly expect them to go up the ladder of social mobility without a fair marketplace where meritocracy—and not political affiliation or “connections”—is valued.

Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.

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