The Poverty Politics research project

"Poverty politics. Current approaches to its production and reduction" is a research programme initiated in 2004 that comprises multiple affiliated projects and people.

Concerns about poverty who is the poor, why they are poor, and what can be deemed a proper response to them have long been at the core of discourses about society and its others. This comparative and multi-disciplinary project is a direct response to current discussions in development politics and the difficulties experienced in the implementation of poverty-reducing strategies.

Far from being a straightforward condition of deprivation and destitution that is easily defined empirically or unambiguously detected through standardised indicators and measurement, poverty is a contentious and complex construct. Poverty is entangled in an archetypal thick discourse, encapsulating a vast range of social, political and historical struggles, constantly evolving new values, imagery, social identities and material outcomes. While a lack of key resources is at the core of most poverty registers worldwide - what defines that lack differs widely across societies and over time. The experience of being poor forged from a multiplicity of possible lacks and shortcomings ---- material, moral, social and metaphorical---defined against what constitutes prosperity and success. Poverty is produced through processes of social differentiation and shaped by the politics of wealth and power, both globally and locally. In other words, while the end results of poverty-producing processes are scarcity, suffering and social exclusion - poverty is formed within cultural frameworks and has to be examined in its proper social and historical context.

The core of this project is a comparative exploration of the myriad ways in which poverty is produced in different social, cultural, political and economic settings. Through historical and ethnographic analysis this multi-disciplinary research investigates the specific ways in which global poverty has been constituted as an object of social knowledge with its specific modes of representation and social engineering. We focus on the implications of this for the social identities of the poor and interventions into their lives by states, NGOs and transnational agencies. We combine this more basic research agenda with a critical assessment of the range of policies, strategies and methodologies aimed at poverty reduction. We seek to build a nuanced and contextualized picture of the forces that combine to encourage development, and of the forces that can and do impede poverty reduction. We study the relationships between elites and poor, between social capital and social mobilisation, and between culture and modernity. In order to demonstrate the diversity of the problem of poverty and the particular difficulties faced by the process in-depth qualitative research will be conducted in highly dissimilar countries i.e. Bolivia, Guatemala, Argentina, Kenya, Uganda, Morocco and India. In particular this project seeks to follow the challenge set by internationally approved poverty reduction strategies and to respond directly to the different critiques of their practice. As such we aim to make a co-ordinated evaluation of these processes by conducting comparative research on these strategies local design and application. We ask whether different political values, structures of government and local decision-making can contribute alternative poverty reducing strategies that make significant departures from the tenets of current development practice?

Principal objectives

The key questions we aim to explore in this project are:

  • How do the relationships between the international system, state and civil society relate to poverty and prosperity in different settings?
  • What are the constraints and alternatives for reducing poverty?
  • How has our knowledge about poverty changed over time, and how have these different perceptions influenced policy?

"Poverty Politics" is funded by a grant from the Research Council of Norway (2004-2007). At the University of Bergen the project is a significant contribution to the University's major strategic focus on international and development-related research as defined in the University's Strategic Plan 2000-2005 and continued under a new, strengthened institutionalisation as a university-wide research focus. The Department of Social Anthropology has played a central role in the building-up of this research focus through four decades and maintains a leading position in this regard. The present project builds on and further develops the department's global partnerships with universities and other relevant institutions. The project involves the active participation of masters and doctoral students.

The changing contours of poverty in scholarly models and development policies

The global community of multilateral governance is hard at work to re-define their efforts vis-à-vis poverty. All these new strategies, plans, reports and evaluations are to demonstrate a new understanding and commitment on the part of donors to alleviating poverty. If one looks back on certain official documents, issues relating to poverty and welfare have evolved and changed their content and rhetoric through time. The poverty issue was at times invisible or visible, implicit or explicit, in the aid activities and the development discourse. But as we find approach the end of the fourth development decade, several questions about the discourse on poverty -- and, closely related, development -- can and should be raised:

How has the poverty discourse evolved, and how much has changed in descriptions of poverty and the poor in donor policy as well as in the models of social science? How has the concept of poverty been understood and described until now, and is there one understanding or perception of what poverty is and consensus on how it should be tackled? Is there a hegemonic discourse about poverty and, if so, how are structures of power articulated through it? How are alternative voices and dissenting views framed and negotiated? What is the relationship between the poverty knowledge articulated through research and the more official poverty talk and policies designed by national governments and international donors?

The project will these questions through a series of desk-studies of both published literature as well as ‘grey’ material mainly to be undertaken by MA students linked to the project. In organising our data, that is, the discursive evidence, we will examine the poverty discourse through registers of meanings and definitions. The material will be divided into the following broad data clusters: 1) definitions/descriptions of poverty, 2) definitions/descriptions of the poor, 3) policies, plans and practices (or prescriptions of what the issues/problems are, their inherent assumptions, and how to tackle them).

The Poverty Discourse in Development Assistance

The purpose of research is not so much to present one definition of poverty and development. It is rather to illustrate through a historical, discursive analysis how the definition of poverty has been transformed (and perhaps even inflated) throughout the history of development assistance.

The objective of the study is to have a comparative analysis on the discourse of poverty from the mid-1960s to the present and to find shifts in regards to what is spoken about poverty then and now. Through a critical reading of official documentation - primarily the annual OECD/DAC Reviews and the World Bank’s World Development Reports (WDRs) - we will attempt to trace the evolvement of poverty as a concept. We have chosen these two different types of reports precisely because we wanted different types of documentation in order to disaggregate what and how the actors were presenting the problems of development. As such, the WDRs give much more insight and analysis than the DAC Reviews, yet on many levels the DAC Reviews represent the thinking of multiple actors.

We will also examine the workings of bilateral plans to find nuances in how the general category known as the "donors" approach these issues. A review of some of the policies of the Scandinavian donors -- Norway, Sweden and Denmark -- will be undertaken to demonstrate how bilateral donors were reacting to the debate as laid out by the multilateral donors. The purpose here is to investigate how much the discussion as presented by the bilateral donors resembles the arguments of the World Bank and OECD/DAC, or whether there is a different perspective on poverty represented by the "like-minded" countries.

In order to test the reception and various interpretations of the discourse by those targeted, we focus on the development plans created by highly contrasting Latin American, Indian and African governments. It is hoped that this diversity of cases will help the research to come behind the facade, disaggregate the concept of poverty even further and actually deal with the heterogeneity of developing countries,. When compared with donor statements, do we find repetition in the presentation of the problems, the methods for presenting the problems, the same understanding of what the problem is? Is there a parroting or repetition of slogans, in the same way that one copies fashion designers? Or is there a difference depending upon whether the focus is on donor or recipient viewpoints? We will also look at what happens with poverty more locally by including the study of selected district plans Where appropriate, examples will be taken from their respective national development plans in order to demonstrate and/or counter the claim that there is a world view.


The Poverty Discourse In Social Science

The poverty research industry has played an important role in delivering models, measurements and theoretical justification for poverty politics both international as well as on the various domestic arenas. Yet the institutional/professional memory amongst social scientists tends to be as shallow as that of development agencies.

We urgently need to chronicle and critically review the thinking behind what has historically been very different perceptions of the poverty problem. There has been a transformation in the study of poverty from the more reform-mined inquiry into the political economy of industrial capitalism, (like the ones of Eilert Sundt, Torsten Veblen, Gunnar Myrdahl to mention some of ‘the natives’), - to the highly controversial “culture of poverty” notion of Oscar Lewis (1965)- and to the detached and very technical analysis of the present focus on income, demography and nutrition and finally capacity. In short, poverty knowledge has been produced through very different models, spanning psychosomatic profiles, social surveys, ethnography and statistical aggregations and so on.

The major tension in poverty research over time has been between approaches addressing structural inequality against those focusing more on altering individual and/or group behaviour. Our study of past and present approaches to poverty will also explore the wider context - the politics, institutions, ideologies and social science that shaped poverty research and influenced policy.