Disclaimer: This article builds on stereotypes. Ironic, since stereotypes are what the Rusty Radiator tries to fight. However, the stereotypes are not of the poor, but of Rusty Radiator fans. Perhaps not more fair and precise than stereotypes about the poor, but using stereotypes is still the easiest way to communicate in few words.
Ask about poverty and how to alleviate poverty, and you will receive different answers depending on whom you ask.
It is not only individuals that hold various truths about poverty alleviation; this also goes for the organizations dedicated to alleviate poverty. In international development discourse, there is a range of various narratives available to frame the fight against poverty. Acknowledging that all are overly simplistic, consider the five alternative narratives about poverty alleviation below, which can all to some degree be said to involve a ‘true’ story about poverty alleviation – meaning that they can be credibly justified. Which of the stories do you agree to the most and think deserves to be most widespread?
A• Poverty is the result of lack of development. Development starts with growth, which requires capital and skills brought in from the more developed countries, primarily via private sector investments.
B• Poverty is the result of poor governance, bad politics and bad leaders, and/or incompetent or lazy people in the countries concerned. There is little we can do about that except to make sure that none of our money goes into the bad leaders’ pockets.
C• Poverty is maintained by post-colonial relations in which well-meaning Western aid and development policies form part by distorting democratic accountability, promoting misguided policies (e.g. civil and political human rights before economic growth), and fostering corruption.
D• Poverty is the result of a complex web of social, political and economic national and international dynamics, ultimately rooted in a history of asymmetric relations between rich and poor, North and South that have always favored the North. Thus, poverty can only be eradicated by addressing and challenging these complex dynamics.
E• There is little you can do about poverty at large, but at least you can help one! We can make sure your monthly donations will be used effectively to help this particular child and her community.
Consider, then what each narrative tell about agency:
Who are the groups that take on the role as the main actors in the fight against poverty? Who are the ‘poverty heroes’ in each narrative?
No surprise if the narrative you favored the most, was the narrative in which you could take a leading role. For the Africa for Norway fans – stereotypically assumed to be people with higher education predominantly in social sciences, politically conscious and perhaps slightly leftish in political orientation – that would be option d. above.
The narrative about complexity delegates the leading role in the fight against poverty to an academic and political elite (or younger people aspiring to become), as it requires good understanding of the complexity, rejection of stereotypes, and quite sophisticated thought that is not for everybody. Moreover, since it insists on the international dimensions of poverty it delegates leading roles to Northerners (even if the same Northerners always insist that Southerners need to take the lead). After all, the Northerners are closer to the global powers, and have more knowledge of well-functioning societies – and in particular, the open and liberal democratic societies about which Northerners take pride and insist on as necessary paths out of poverty for others.
This role is exclusive to the elite. Ordinary people’s role in the fight against poverty are primarily to vote for the most responsible political parties, to accept that tax money goes to official development aid and to share some of their income with politically correct NGOs.
The academic and political elite have spent more time than others trying to understand poverty and are therefore more likely to choose the narrative about complexity and dismiss simple analyses.
But let us for a moment think that this is not the only reason. For the same narrative is also the narrative that reinforce the leading role to the elite and marginalizes ordinary people to having only supporting roles. And when choosing between different narratives about poverty – all carrying some truth – the one narrative that assigns to ourselves the leading role in the fight against poverty is too good to be questioned even by critically minded intellectuals. Conversely, we tend to put some extra efforts into questioning narratives saying that we are part of the problem – or delegating the main role to business people, which our political segment tends to dislike.
If so, which one of these narratives you hold as the ‘truth’ is not just reflecting your understanding of poverty alleviation, but moreover it can tell us something about whom you want to be assigned the role as the hero in the narrative. And it is worth pondering upon whether the truth about poverty alleviation held by Africa for Norway fans (in the stereotypical version used here) can be ascribed to their own self-identification as being part of a political and academic elite, assigning them a special role as heroes in their chosen poverty alleviation narrative.
The narrative that ‘you can make a difference at least for one poor person’, on the other hand, would intuitively deserve some attraction as it delegates more or less equally to all of us a role as a hero in the fight against poverty (as all can share some from their pockets). But it undermines the exclusive role of the academic and political elite since they cannot do much more than others. Because it depends on a narrative that builds on and reinforces simplicity and stereotypes, which everybody can relate to, neither does it delegate to academics any exclusive role in understanding.
The overall arguments are simplistic and not fair – and they build on stereotypes about Africa for Norway fans that are probably not more true than stereotypes about the poor. Nonetheless, I think it is worth considering. Partly because there may be some truth in it, and because it does not hurt the academic and political elite (or those aspiring towards) to become more modest in their view on their own role in development processes going on in other countries and/or other population segments. Partly also because it can explain why Africa for Norway and similar initiatives do not reach as far as their supporters feel that they deserve. That may be, if non-elite people in the target group feel that there is some elitism involved in this game and therefore choose to opt out. Or perhaps simply because the non-elite won’t easily give up a narrative about development that gives them a key role, only to adapt another narrative placing them in the role as extras to the main actors at best. After all, it is not a tempting offer to be an extra in the superman show when you can choose another truth that gives you the role as a hero on equal terms with the elite, saving the lives of African children at the mere cost of a few take-away coffees per month.
Written by Øyvind Eggen
Øyvind Eggen is the Policy Director of the Department of Evaluation in Norad. Throughout the years, he has been a visible voice in the debate about Norwegian and international aid, and has a private blogg “Innvikling”, where he posts articles about Norwegian and international aid. His blog and the following article express his personal views, and not those of Norad.