From poverty to power

Posted: 25 July 2008

Oxfam's Duncan Green summarizes the central argument of his new book From Poverty to Power. Challenging the view that progress in developing countries is predominantly driven by changes in rich country behavior, it instead seeks to demonstrate that change happens from the bottom-up, driven by effective states that are held to account by active citizens.

From poverty to power book jacket
From poverty to power book jacket
Jeronima Quiviquivi is a force of nature. Surrounded by the youngest of her six children, sitting outside her new house on the edge of the indigenous village of Monteverde in the muggy heat of a tropical afternoon, she recalls the struggles of her people, the Chiquitano Indians of lowland Bolivia.

'My father never realised about our rights. We just did what the white people told us - only they could be in power, be President. We couldn't even go into the town centre - people swore at us. But then we got our own organisation and elected our own leaders and that's when we realised we had rights.'

Organising themselves at first under the guise of a soccer league - the only way they could meet and talk with Chiquitanos from other villages - the indigenous activists of Monteverde fought for things that mattered to them: land, education, rights, a political voice. Moments of confrontation helped build a common history: bursting into the local government offices to seize the files proving that the unpaid labour they were forced to provide had been outlawed years before; a march on the distant capital, La Paz, which bolstered their sense of common identity with Bolivia's highland indigenous majority.

Now the Chiquitanos have seized the positions of what was once white power: they have their own mayors and senators and, in La Paz, Bolivia's first ever indigenous president, Evo Morales. And with power came the promise of precious land: after a ten-year campaign, on 3 July 2007 the Chiquitanos of Monteverde clinched an agreement with the government that granted them a 'land of communal origin' of 1m hectares.

The course of this epic struggle also transformed relationships at home. Jeronima's husband, himself a local leader, now looks after the kids when she has a meeting. 'We used to meet separately as women, but now we meet with the men - we're no longer afraid,' she says.

Why Women Count - Bolivia
Why Women Count - Bolivia
The Chiquitanos' journey out of marginalisation underlines the central role of power and politics in development. The interplay between individuals, families, communities, and states can open paths to rights, security, and prosperity, or it can condemn communities to vulnerability and poverty. Power and politics will determine whether the world can build on the extraordinary pace of political and social change of the twentieth century in order to eradicate extreme poverty and tackle inequality and injustice.

Active citizenship

Development starts at an individual level, through active citizenship. That means developing self-confidence and overcoming the insidious way in which the condition of being relatively powerless can become internalised. In relation to other people, it means developing the ability to negotiate and influence decisions. And when empowered individuals work together, it means involvement in collective action, be it at the village or neighbourhood level, or more broadly. Ultimately, active citizenship means engaging with the political system, and assuming some degree of responsibility for the public domain, leaving behind simple notions of 'them' and 'us'. Otherwise, in the memorable phrase of the French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel, 'A society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves'.

But active citizenship is only part of the development story, perhaps the most comfortable part for activists and campaigners. The evidence from the numerous stories of successful development over the last 60 years is that countries need effective states, not just active citizens, if they are to flourish.

Botswana's success story

Take the southern African nation of Botswana, with its small population, arid landscape, land-locked and highly dependent on diamonds - the very 'curse of wealth' that has destabilised numerous other countries in Africa. At independence in 1966, it had just two secondary schools and twelve kilometres of paved road, and relied on the UK for half of government revenues. Botswana ought to be a basket case.

Apparently, no-one told Botswana, which has become Africa's most enduring success story. Its GDP per capita has risen a hundred fold since independence, making it the world's fastest growing economy over three decades. It negotiated tough deals for its diamonds with de Beers and used the resulting royalties well. Throughout, it has remained one of Sub-Saharan Africa's few non-racial democracies, despite being bordered (and occasionally invaded) by racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia.

The secret of Botswana's success lies in politics. The country's elite comes from a single dominant ethnic group (the Tswana) whose traditional governance systems, emphasizing broad consultation and consensus building, emerged largely unscathed from colonialism. The country's leading human rights activist calls it 'gentle authoritarianism'.

The government broke every rule in the 'Washington Consensus' book, setting up state-owned companies, nationalizing all mineral rights and steering the economy via six-year National Development Plans. 'We are a free market economy that does everything by planning,' one local academic told me, laughing.

In the second half of last century, dozens of countries across the developing world emulated Botswana's success and achieved similar growth rates. 'Getting the politics right' was key for them all. These countries have built effective states that guarantee the rule of law, ensure a healthy and educated population, control their national territories and create a positive environment for investment, growth and trade. For many, the growth spurt began with the redistribution of land and other crucial assets.

Not by aid alone

This history bears little relation to the cruder narratives on development advanced by rich country governments or, for that matter, some NGOs. Getting the politics right can 'make poverty history', but aid alone cannot. Even though the alchemy of development takes place primarily in the crucible of effective states and active citizens, global institutions such as aid donors, the UN or large transnational corporations clearly have a significant role.

Children playing in the Pasig River, Manila
Children playing in the Pasig River, Manila,
Children playing in the Pasig River, Manila, Philippines, where factories dump their waste. © Ron Giling/Panos Pictures
Firstly, we are not short of global problems, from climate change to pandemics, that can only be dealt with at a global level. Secondly, nation states will not wither away, but their actions are increasingly constrained (for good or ill) by an ever-spreading web of global and regional trade agreements, and thousands of bilateral investment treaties as well as the proliferating 'soft law' of international conventions and codes of conduct on everything from financial services to human rights.

Rich country governments and their citizens need to ensure that this inchoate system of global government supports national development efforts based on the combination of effective states and active citizens. They must also act decisively to deter powerful countries and corporations from doing harm, whether through paying bribes, or imposing policies that harm the poor.

The fight against the scourges of poverty, inequality, and the threat of environmental collapse will define the twenty-first century, as the fight against slavery or for universal suffrage defined earlier eras. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile cause. Fail, and future generations will not forgive us. Succeed, and they will wonder how the world could have tolerated such needless injustice and suffering for so long.

See also Oxfam's shorter book on the same theme, The Urgency of Now

Duncan Green is author of 'From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States can change the World', published by Oxfam in June. See www.fp2p.org for more details, or watch the From Poverty to Power video on YouTube.