The complexities of the ‘lifting people out of poverty’ narrative

If you do Twitter right (full disclosure: I also follow Only in Russia and The Dodo) it can be an awesome space for global development debates.
There are a lot of smart people in my regular feed that share interesting, important empirical insights into development research e.g. Dina Pomeranz, Alice Evans, Maya Forstater, David Evans, or Justin Sandefur.

Right now, there is also a great debate going on where Jason Hickel and Brank Milanovic argue of (de-)growth (see below).

Let’s leave questions of ‘decolonization’ aside for a moment, because I do realize that said Twitter feed is dominated by citizens of the global North, educated at some of the best universities there and working at great organizations and universities.

It was probably Dina Pomeranz’ long thread on what she is thankful for that encouraged me to write down what I have been mulling over for a longer time: The very powerful and usually very unidirectional discussion around ‘our world is not getting worse, but better’ usually supplemented by at least one reference to how ‘millions of people have been lifted out of poverty’.

Both the late Hans Rosling and Max Roser’s Our World in Data did and do an excellent job about the big picture stuff in which development (i.e. money spend from aid budgets) plays a small, but significant role.

But these very large-n curves only tell one side of the story-or, to be a bit more precise, they contribute to a depolitization that usually ignores the other side of the coin:
‘More people have access to electricity than ever before’ is fantastic news for many people whose lives are made easier, potentially more fulfilling, but that story is linked to other stories e.g. about China’s increasing use of coal-to produce cheap energy for electricity.
Economic growth comes with huge cost-and maybe even more importantly with lifestyle changes. It is great news that kids can read late at night at the well-illuminated kitchen table, but that same electricity is also required to run the fridge, microwave or TV and charge mobiles and laptops-and tons an tons of plastic and other resources will be used and sold ‘to lift families out of poverty’.

As George Monbiot writes in his current commentary for the upcoming Black Friday shopping extravaganza that has now become a global phenomenon:

Everyone wants everything – how is that going to work? The promise of economic growth is that the poor can live like the rich and the rich can live like the oligarchs. But already we are bursting through the physical limits of the planet that sustains us. Climate breakdown, soil loss, the collapse of habitats and species, the sea of plastic, insectageddon: all are driven by rising consumption. The promise of private luxury for everyone cannot be met: neither the physical nor the ecological space exists.
But of course as Duncan Green points out in his discussion about the climate change trilemma, the techno-optimists may win and we will all be fine:
The world listens to the science and the scientists and somehow finds a way to stay within the planetary boundaries (decarbonization, broader shift to sustainability, including shift in norms around consumption etc)
In addition ‘lifting people out of poverty’ comes with new challenges as people live longer and up to a point healthier lives:

Preparing societies and their institution, currently very busy in ‘lifting people out of poverty’ and making sure everybody has a job, for an ageing society with new social and medical challenges that cannot be fully captured by yet another curve that goes up, e.g. life expectancy.

Communicating research with neat data visualizations is an important way to engage social media audiences with reminders that things, including ‘in Africa’, are not simply getting worse. But improvements come at a cost and the cost of growth raises important questions on how to deal with it.
Jason Hickel's recent discussion with Branko Milanovic (see below) is an important reminder:

Yes, one might argue that we can improve the share of growth that goes to the poorest. That would be an important first step, to be sure. But as long as the rest of the world continues to grow, increasing aggregate material throughput and emissions, we’re going to be in trouble. In fact, we’re already in trouble even at existing levels of throughput and emissions, and we can see it all around us: rapid deforestation, collapsing fish stocks, mass species extinction, soil depletion and of course climate change, with the poorest getting hit hardest by far. Milanovic believes we can reign these problems in with more “environmentally friendly” growth. But that’s a pipe dream.
As much as the ‘post-Rosling’ world likes a good data visualization, advocates in the #globaldev arena should point out the complexities more often and remind audiences that New Delhi’s toxic air, the market for skin bleaching products and Bollywood movies advocating for indoor bathrooms are all part of the same consumerist logic and politicians, corporations and other institutions do not always have the best interests in mind when those ‘lifted out of poverty’ join new markets.
Here's Branko Milanovic from the debate with Jason Hickel on (de-)growth:

Capitalist societies, after several centuries of exposure to market ideology and way of life, are structured in such a way that populations have fully accepted, and reaffirm in their daily lives, the objectives that make capitalism thrive. We want more and newer “stuff” every year. The ideology of commodification and commercialization has never been stronger: it is as present in the UK and the United States as in China, Nigeria, Congo, Russia or Brazil. We are not only working for a wage, we are cheerfully renting our homes and cars for money, networking at our children’s birthdays, and having kids who beat each other to grab a new model of smart phone or shoes. In other words, we have global capitalism with a population that has internalized the objectives needed for capitalism to reproduce itself and to expand, by requiring an ever greater amount of saving, investment and output.
In a perfect world we would have safe and hygienic indoor toilets for everyone, but behavior change is far more complicated and open to manipulation.
The ‘lifting people out of poverty narrative’ often overlooks that our digital now is already very complicated (Zeynep Tufekci's TED talk is a powerful reminder that so-called social networks are essentially advertising platforms).
Adding new consumers will unlikely bring sustainability and happiness any time soon...

Happy Thanksgiving!


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