Poverty reduction – Global impasse and need for redirection


Various strategies were put forward ranging from economic approaches and of late to social and political dimensions.  Despite laudable efforts from all quarters in the fight against poverty, the present rate of progress is extremely slow in improving the lives of the poor.  The well known international institutions and multi and bilateral agencies such as World Bank, UN, EC, DFID and some major NGOs in the north such as Oxfam, Action Aid and so forth have promulgated various strategies and invested time, energy and efforts towards the goal of reducing, if not eradicating, poverty.  Abject poverty still remains unabated in many parts of the world, particularly in the developing countries. 

Governments all over the world have developed specific strategies to combat poverty.  In The Gambia various poverty alleviation strategies were developed and implemented over the last decades.  Nonetheless, whatever progress that has been scored in the direction of alleviating poverty has been painfully slow despite the fact that these strategies have also been supplemented by various poverty reduction programmes of multi and bilateral development partners and NGOs.  

This condition is not peculiar to The Gambia alone.  They are common phenomena in the development world which have warranted a series of global conferences from Rio to Copenhagen to Beijing to Cairo – all trying to address the various aspects of poverty.  It is accepted by all that the scale of reducing poverty is indeed daunting.  The world population has reached the 6 billion mark and will increase by 2 billion by the time today’s kids are 25 years old.  Most of this population will be born in the developing countries.  There are desperate concerted efforts to tackle the problem – targets are set to reduce poverty by half in 15 years and countries are encouraged to develop specific strategies to fight poverty such as SPA II in The Gambia.  Apart from ensuring a conducive macro-economic environment, such strategies include the development of poverty sensitive budgets and resource allocation mechanisms, appropriate targeting of the poor and the coordination of development initiatives.


Poverty is universally accepted as multi-dimensional yet its precise definition has remained elusive.  From the humble academic beginnings of defining it in the context of a lack of economic development, the definition of poverty has crossed the frontiers of quantitative and physical features of life and living.  It now encompasses the intangible elements of qualitative factors ranging from the lack of social capital to individual political rights and security issues.  This eclectic attempt to define poverty in itself underscores the slippery and amorphous nature of the subject matter that is being dealt with.  It further underscores the fact that there is no single identifiable path to alleviating poverty.  Identifiable objectives and strategies on poverty alleviation must necessarily be based on a normative premise that recognises the need for diversity of cultures and social forms of living in a country-specific manner.

At the global level, poverty reduction strategies require some rethinking.  It appears that despite enormous investments in all facets of poverty in its most extended definition(s) reducing poverty has remained elusive.  What could be the reason for such a condition?  Traditional implementation procedures have evaluated strategies in the context of the outcome of planned interventions in order to give meaning to the inadequate results.  In most cases such meanings are derived from the examination of a programme or implementation environment vis-a-vis an assumed environment determined at the planning stage.  A poverty reduction programme may be considered to have failed because the macro economic and political environment that was assumed never took place.  What indeed is never examined is the theoretical content of the strategy itself.

Since the late 1980s, the world economy has witnessed radical changes that have undermined the very foundations upon which the pillars of poverty reduction have been based.  The world has witnessed the emergence of the global market in which the state gradually lost control over the movement of capital and national economies are more influenced by global monetary conditions than national ones.  There is a growing interdependence between countries.  Developing countries that are required to formulate and deal with poverty issues are in the poorest position to take advantage of these phenomenal changes.  These changes have undermined the very foundation of the theories upon which the development and poverty reduction strategies have been based – that the agents of change (usually the state) and the means of change (state control of macro economic environment) are the prime movers of the process of poverty alleviation.  In other words, national governments are required to take hold of their destinies in conditions in which they have no more control and by means that are beyond their entire influence.  From a theoretical point of view, governments do not have the means to control and shape the poverty alleviation process!  Thus the unconditional and unqualified positioning of governments in the center stage of alleviating poverty has become very different on the basis that there cannot be a state intervention if the state is no longer in control.

The theoretical grounding of poverty reduction strategies seems weak and redundant.  It is based on a poverty-focused influence of the state to permeate and inject all national policies with a poverty agenda at a time when globalisation replaces state control with control by market forces.  States are now more influenced by the dictates of the multi national agencies and institutions than ever before.  These agencies and institutions mainly respond to market needs.

Markets may be efficient in the use of factors of production but they have not been well known to equitably distribute the benefits of economic growth.  Throwing poverty reduction into the laps of the state exposes it to the forces of the deregulated global market that are insensitive to the needs of the marginalised.  Is this not the main contention of the anti globalisation campaign?  Are fears not expressed that the poor do not have an equal opportunity in the global market that is controlled by multinationals?  How do we get out of this impasse?  

This is a new challenge to development thinking and is a pointer to the need to elaborate upon country specific definition of poverty as opposed to a global one and to identify suitable intervention strategies that examine the theoretical content of the policies themselves – policies that will develop a framework based on local diversity in the means or instruments proposed for achieving objectives of poverty alleviation and the agents needed to promote and implement these objectives.  It is an issue of revisiting the theories of development formerly based on universal applicability and to examine such theories for their relevance in terms of social and cultural suitability.  It requires redirecting the global foreign investment programs in renewed concentration areas.

This article cannot go into the depths of such discourse but it is hoped that it will unfold a new debate on approaches to development issues in general and poverty alleviation concerns in particular.


By Lamin Comma