Good news for poor people!

Everyone pessimistic on social change in countries where corruption is omnipresent: Banerjee & Duflo – the researchers of the book: Poor Economics – have some good advice for poor people who want to bring about change.

In Blantyre I was travelling with my Malawian colleague when we almost ran into a road block, set-up by police. Luckily my colleague was able to just avoid it, so he didn’t have to pay a bribe or fight over it. And he sighed: in a country where everyone is demanding bribes to add to their poor salary, one feels stupid to be the only person not doing it.

There is always this discussion whether a successful country’s development starts with good governance or with reducing poverty. Many are pessimistic about any success in developing countries because of corruption present in (governmental) institutions. Failure of government programmes in the past caused distrust about government’s strains today. Under-equipped governmental institutions and low wages for officials, and supplies (e.g. health care, education) far below market prices makes corruption attractive. And wrong assumptions made by policy makers, not knowing what’s happening on the ground and uninterested to find out, result in unrealistic and ineffective projects. All this makes programmes of governments, NGOs or multilateral organisations often fail. Yet, WE – my Malawian colleague and I – were able to run a wonderful youth exchange and train-the-trainer programme in a country that obviously is struggling with corruption.

Optimism brings change more easily than pessimism
I am an optimistic person, and experienced good grassroots projects – but one starts to wonder if there is truth in these pessimistic assumptions above, because loads of stories to prove them. The problem with big theories is that there are always examples to demonstrate one theory or the other, and they all seem somehow sensible to me. Banerjee & Duflo fancy evidence-based practice – as I do – and found enough grounds to remain optimistic.

Change starts with positive expectations. For example in India people did not believe women could be good politicians at first. But at the time people saw examples of good female representatives (for a period of time in India 1 out of 3 district officials should be women) they will vote for them later on intentionally. What’s more, pessimism nips in the bud any change, and waiting in vain for social change is very discouraging. So you better take action!

If you can’t change institutions, you change small-scale practice
If it is that difficult to change institutions, one better start taking initiative on a small scale, or make changes in the margin as Banerjee & Duflo call it. A simple and effective example from Uganda: district officials used to keep 87% of the money reserved for the maintenance and equipment for schools for themselves. When made public, the Ministry of Finance started to publish the amounts in the newspapers monthly and then only 20% disappeared in officials’ pockets. When the affected head masters filed an official complaint, most of the schools received the entire amount budgeted.

Change starts with being informed
The Ugandan example also implies that being informed is extremely important! It turned out that information should be given by someone trustworthy, it should be specified to concrete actions, and it should be clear what the action will result in. If teachers got the assignment to teach every child to read and write in a summer school, they did so.

Another pessimistic complaint often heard about Africa is that political parties are divided along ethnical boundaries. In Benin it appeared that when politicians had a vague election speech, people tended to vote for someone of their own kinship – because they distrusted vague speakers, they took the slight benefit one may have from a candidate from the same background. When people WERE informed about politicians’ performances, they tended to vote according to that knowledge. Evidently, here journalists and social media could play a significant role!

Change starts with involvement of the people concerned
So obvious, yet practised too little: any change needs involvement of the people concerned. At village meetings in Indonesia normally 50 villagers showed up, half of them from the elite, and just 7 of them made the decisions. After an official invitation to all villagers, almost 40 non-elite participants, out of 65, were present. And decision-making was far more democratic.

Small initiatives can go a long way
If you are informed and know your rights you will be able to check and balance politicians or policies’ implementation. And if you know how you can effect change, you can stand up for your own rights (or support those who stand up). On a small-scale. And small initiatives sometimes have great results.

To be continued.

This blog is based on a part of part 2 of the book and research Poor Economics: A radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty, Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2011). The Dutch title is Arm & Kansrijk.

Since a blog is way too short to explain all nuances, examples and supporting evidence I would suggest: read Poor economics yourself.





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