Why poverty is development’s best friend

The ‘development’ discourse serves the same purpose as the colonial apparatus but without the bad press. After 67 years of failing to eliminate deprivation in India, is it time to look for new ideas?

July 13, 2015 01:27 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:10 pm IST

THE VIEW FROM BELOW: “Defining poverty in terms of income limits solutions to those that can raise income.” In the photo, a girl studies at the doorway of her house in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum.

THE VIEW FROM BELOW: “Defining poverty in terms of income limits solutions to those that can raise income.” In the photo, a girl studies at the doorway of her house in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum.

The Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011, which hit the headlines earlier this month, tells us that half the households in rural India are landless, >dependant on casual manual labour , and live in deprivation. By suggesting that poverty in India is worse than previously estimated, it has again triggered the old debate about the right way to count the poor.

But disagreements on methodology apart, most commentators agree that the >SECC numbers on rural poverty merit serious consideration . They are expected to guide evidence-based policy-making. But how exactly does that work?

For instance, now that we have >data which show that there are more poor people in India than previously thought , living in greater deprivation that previously thought, is India’s economic policy or development model likely to change in the light of this fresh evidence? Will the finance minister reverse the cuts on welfare spending announced in the 2015 budget? Now that we know landlessness is widespread, will the government reverse its stand on dispossessing more farmers of their land through its land bill amendments?

Or will it be business as usual? >Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s reaction to the SECC numbers offer an unambiguous answer: “The way to eliminate deprivation is to achieve rapid economic growth of 8 per cent to 10 per cent.”

Mr. Jaitley’s words reflect the prevailing wisdom on the > best way to battle poverty. Sample these editorials from the business press on the SECC data: “India needs to grow fast…move ever more people from agriculture to industry” says one. Another asserts that “this database provides the strongest foundations…to comprehend the nature of deprivation in different parts of the country. This is the starting point for an understanding of its causes”.

Really? Did we have to wait 67 years, and for this particular set of SECC data, to understand the causes of deprivation in India? Or is it possible that the question is not about understanding causes at all? That what really concerns policy-makers here is not the problem (poverty) but the solution (growth/development)?

The poverty-development tango Human beings at different points in time have had diverse cultural conceptions of poverty. Not all of them have been negative. Indeed, at a time when India is witnessing a sort of post-modern, pseudo-Vedic revival, it might be pertinent to point out that the sub-continent is home to a long and ancient tradition of frugality, moderation, and voluntary poverty that even carried quite a bit of spiritual capital. So are other non-Western cultures.

The >problematisation of poverty is a recent phenomenon, one that went hand in hand with the rise of the economy as an autonomous domain, independent of the human totality of culture, politics and society. It was only in the post-World War-II period that poverty was made visible – by the discourse of development -- as a global problem.

As has been pointed out by several critics of developmentalism, three historical factors were crucial in the rise of the ‘development apparatus’. One, the decline of colonialism, which signified the end of direct political control over Third World populations and geographies; two, the epicentre of world capitalism shifted from the UK to the US; and three, the rise of communism in the form of the Soviet bloc.

Together, these factors posed a series of challenges to Western capital: securing new sources of raw materials for industry, securing new sites for investment of surplus capital, securing new markets for goods and commodities, and geo-politically securing the capitalist universe from the communist threat.

The answer to all these challenges was what is known as the Truman Doctrine. It was America’s initiative, as the global steward of capitalism, to ‘develop’ the ‘underdeveloped’ areas of the world through capitalism, science and technology.

In practice, this doctrine translated into a dual strategy – one for its European allies, another for its non-European ones. The US donated free capital to the former, so that the core nations of global capitalism – the UK, France, West Germany – could rebuild their war-wrecked economies quickly. This was the Marshall Plan, a $120 billion (in current dollar value) handout that defied every law of neoclassical economics.

For the latter (the erstwhile colonies), it shepherded into existence the Bretton Woods institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, whose job it became to expand and consolidate capitalism in the furthest reaches of the Third World.

But why would newly independent nations want to take economic advice from their former oppressors? This is where the discourse of poverty and development had a role. In place of the dismantled apparatus of colonialism, the Truman Doctrine ushered in the development apparatus, whose main component was the Bretton Woods institutions, which had close links with Western capital as well as with the governing elites of every nation-state. With its trans-national army of development experts, this apparatus served the same purpose as the colonial apparatus but without the bad press – preserving the economic dominance of the First World over the Third World.

This dominance was secured through programs of financial assistance that went hand in hand with the creation of knowledge about the nations designated as ‘underdeveloped’. An offshoot of this knowledge management project – conducted through a panoply of surveys, studies and theoretical models – was the discipline of development economics.

Theorists of development such as Arturo Escobar, Wolfgang Sachs and Majid Rahnema have written about how the discourse of development economics functioned as a ‘regime of representation’ that not only objectified human lives – reducing human experience to a single metric, say, land ownership, or calories consumed – but also reconfigured two-thirds of the world’s population as stricken by the pathologies of ‘poverty’. The treatment, to be administered by the IMF and the World Bank, was ‘development’.

Rather than curing the disease, what the treatment did was to destroy the immune system further. As Escobar observed in his classic, Encountering Development, “instead of the kingdom of abundance promised by theorists and politicians in the 1950s, the discourse and strategy of development produced its opposite: massive underdevelopment and impoverishment, untold exploitation and oppression… increasing poverty, malnutrition, and violence are only the most pathetic signs of the failure of forty years of development.”

It is a testament to the sophisticated lure of the development discourse that even today, after six decades of repeated failures, its hold over the social imagination remains as powerful as ever. Poverty and development continue to be inseparable buddies tangoing around the world merrily in the service of capital.

Repeating history

And here we are in India today, gloriously reprising recent history – already played out multiple times in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s across Africa and Latin America -- with yet another government leading a billion souls down the garden path of ‘sabka vikas’.

Coming back to evidence-based policy-making, the SECC data is ample evidence, if any was needed, that 67 years of ‘development’ have failed to eliminate deprivation in India. Yet the critical interrogation occasioned by this evidence is never extendable to the doxa that the poor are people lacking in essential economic goods which can only be accessed by them when they embrace the market, increase their productivity, and improve their incomes.

On the one hand, industry-led growth – with its concomitants of displacement, dispossession, and proletarianisation of the peasantry – severs people from access to land, water, and other communal resources, creating a constellation of deprivations. On the other, these very deprivations serve as the reason for a tighter embrace of the market economy, a policy aggressively pushed by the Bretton Woods institutions in the name of development.

For instance, there is no axiomatic or natural reason why poverty needs to be defined by measures of income or consumption. It could also be defined in terms of a people’s political agency – how much control they exercise over the factors that determine their life chances, which may or may not be linked to a money economy. But defining poverty in terms of income limits possible solutions to those that can raise income – development via economic growth. This was the logic behind the statements made by the finance minister and the editorials cited above.

Economic thinking has saturated our common sense to such an extent that it has become almost impossible for us to imagine that there might be an alternative vision of social change that has nothing to do with development or an economistic agenda of progress.

How did societies change before colonialism? Before the era of development? What if, say, a people’s culture dictates that they produce only for need and not for accumulation? Does the developmental paradigm allow space for such a cultural choice?

Developmental discourses, both the Keynesian-inspired one mandating state intervention, as well as the currently dominant neo-liberal school advocating market solutions, are united by a common vision of the poor as entities in need of assistance -- be it welfare or ‘skilling’ or jobs. What if it’s not the poor but the missionaries of growth and the archangels of development who need help?


Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.