Thinking and Working Politically to Eradicate Extreme Poverty

Larry Garber

The call in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address to eradicate extreme poverty over the next 20 years is comparable to President Kennedy’s 1961 promise to place a man on the moon before 1970. The idea is the same: Set a bold vision, motivate policymakers and the general public, and invest sufficient resources to accelerate the necessary technological advances to meet the challenge.

However, eradicating extreme poverty worldwide will depend upon an ingredient beyond the control of President Obama and his successors: the policies of the countries where extreme poverty remains most prevalent. Therefore, as the United States and other countries shape this noble commitment into the goals that will succeed the Millennium Development Goals, and as USAID includes the eradication of extreme poverty into the heart of its new mission statement, we must understand the rationale behind host country political choices that contribute to extreme poverty. We then must determine how the international community can best play a role in affecting those choices.

A protester holds a placard to mark the anniversary of a crackdown on villagers demonstrating against a Chinese-backed copper mi
A protester holds a placard to mark the anniversary of a crackdown on villagers demonstrating against a Chinese-backed copper mine in Burma. Giving a voice to the poor and marginalized members of society should cause political leaders to take their needs

As the United Nations High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda reveals, the fight to eliminate extreme poverty will take place primarily in countries that experience poor governance, are subject to ongoing conflicts or both.1 The situation in Nigeria exemplifies these challenges. Even though Nigeria’s economy has grown at an average rate of 7.5 percent per annum during the past decade, the number of people living in extreme poverty increased by 22.8 million between 2002 and 2010.2

This seeming anomaly exists for several reasons, including a high rate of population growth, low literacy rates and poor mobilization of domestic resources. All of these stem from policy choices made by, in this case, a democratically elected government. These choices are influenced by political elites who have made their own calculations about what constitutes their nation’s best interests.

Even when Nigeria’s federal and state governments adopt pro-poor policies, such as increased funding for basic education or health services, the weak capacity of local actors and siphoning of resources by corrupt leaders hamper implementation. The conflict in the country’s northern regions represents a manifestation of this problem and exacerbates the challenges of responding to the specific needs of those most impoverished.

International development donors and academics traditionally focus on the constraints to growth that exist within a country and assume that eliminating these constraints will drive economic growth and simultaneously reduce extreme poverty, whether it is defined as $1.25 a day or through a more multidimensional approach. Depending on a country’s circumstances, these constraints might include a lack of physical infrastructure, weak legal processes or inadequate human capacity—all of which discourage domestic and foreign investors and exacerbate the circumstances of extreme poverty. Hence, international donors must not only provide resource and knowledge transfers, they must also encourage host country actors—including government counterparts, the private sector and civil society—to address these constraints through policy changes and through improving implementation mechanisms.

Analyses of growth constraints, however, do not address why seemingly obvious policy changes have been so hard to make. Nor do they pay particular attention to regime type. Circumstances in China today, like those of the Asian Tigers in a past era, suggest that the eradication of extreme poverty can occur under authoritarian regimes. On the other hand, too many governments have justified their non-democratic tendencies as essential to social and economic change, and then they’ve deteriorated into corrupt and abusive regimes that have resulted in a significantly poorer citizenry and profound societal ills that require decades to cure. Moreover, growing evidence exists (while still hotly disputed in academic circles) that democracy spurs economic growth by encouraging investment, increasing human capacity through schooling, inducing economic reforms, improving the provision of public goods and reducing social unrest.3

Many donor countries have developed tools to help them better understand the institutional realities that drive public policy in the countries in which they operate. These analyses map the key actors, rules of the game, existing incentive structures, and historical and foundational factors. When done well, such analyses provide profound insights into governance weaknesses and the rationale behind political choices. Ironically, by highlighting the entrenched nature of political elites and the challenges associated with achieving consequential reforms, these analyses often reinforce skepticism regarding the prospects for change.

A political economy analysis may explain the reasons behind the lack of human capacity in key ministries, the corruption that serves to benefit elite interests and the reluctance to allocate scarce government-controlled resources toward the health and education needs of the poor. However, even with such an understanding, political power structures still seem impervious to change. Therefore, we need to not only think, but also work, politically.

What does working politically mean in the context of eradicating extreme poverty? The answer requires consideration of both the substantive aspects of the fight and the internal process changes in how the international community operates. The answer also assumes a definition of extreme poverty that is broader than the $1.25 a day benchmark.

Working politically also involves a change in donor mindset, particularly in the context of addressing the concerns of the extreme poor, and it incorporates some or all of the following elements:

  • Excellent understanding of local context, using political economy analysis as a knowledge base
  • Prioritization of local leadership and capacity, and building on what exists
  • Iterative approaches for exploring complex problems and the range of possible solutions
  • Encouragement of experimentation and innovation combined with mechanisms for rapid feedback and learning
  • Flexible, adaptive procedures that account for the unpredictability and uncertainty of change and allow policymakers to seize opportunities
  • Long-term investments in building knowledge, relationships and networks4

As framed by practitioners from The Asia Foundation, working politically requires the mobilization of local “development entrepreneurs” to identify politically feasible approaches, build coalitions and networks, and seize political opportunities.5 The Foundation’s case studies highlight a series of reforms in the Philippines that transformed the telecommunications, civil aviation and sea transport sectors. The approach used in these reforms involved a concerted effort to carefully analyze local political context, reliance on local leaders who assumed personal responsibility for development outcomes, the seizure of emerging opportunities and perseverance over time. This perseverance contradicts the international donor community’s current orientation toward immediate results.

Applying these principles to the eradication of extreme poverty requires an understanding of the incentives that shape national- and community-level decision-making and a willingness to play a facilitative role in bringing together those actors who are committed to ushering in long-term change. In other words, we must design programs that align around shared values and objectives from the beginning and build in learning opportunities for checking adherence to these values and objectives along the way. Such an approach requires different skills—including system mapping, facilitation, coalition building and iterative learning—from those involved in the management of more traditional donor-driven, sector-specific activities.

From a substantive perspective, the eradication of extreme poverty requires a series of policy choices by host governments: large increases in social assistance, massive investments in education and a pro-poor orientation to economic growth policies. These choices are not inevitable and will emerge from a constellation of primarily domestic political factors reflecting relative power structures. The international community, although limited in its ability to affect power distribution within a society, can affect the calculation of incentives through trade, aid, investment and other policies.

Second, the poor and other marginalized segments of the population must be given a political “voice.” Meaningful participation in electoral politics is part of the package; however, other venues for effective and inclusive political engagement should also be promoted. Access to information, including transparency with respect to budget allocations, facilitates a more active and empowered citizenry. Allowing the free formation of civil society organizations that can advocate for policy change is also critical to ensuring that issues relevant to the poor are placed on the political agenda. By cataloguing situations in which the concerns and needs of the extreme poor have been taken into account, and those in which the situations have improved, we will create important models that can be built upon.

We must acknowledge that vested interests in developed countries too often have prevented policy choices that could dramatically change the lives of the poor.

A third substantive component involves legal empowerment of the poor. This requires accessible venues for the fair adjudication of claims to land and other forms of property and for the resolution of the wide range of contract, family and other disputes. In addition, literacy campaigns should incorporate a civic education component to ensure that all segments of society understand their basic rights and how to realize them.

Fourth, we must continue to focus attention on the scourge of corruption that maintains a power structure adversely impacting the poor. At the macro level, corruption results in resource allocation that benefits vested interests while limiting available resources for the needs of the poor. At the community level, corrupt officials discourage the poor from exercising their political and legal rights and exacerbate the social circumstances—such as a lack of jobs, education, health care and other basic services—that govern their lives and opportunities.

Taken together, these substantive aspects of working politically—including improved governance capacity to deliver services, an expanded political voice for the poor and increased transparency and accountability—should change the calculus for political leaders so that they take the needs of the poor more seriously in all dimensions and act accordingly. To facilitate our understanding of this calculus in contemporary societies, we should undertake a proactive research agenda that examines the relationships between democracy, human rights and governance realities, as well as their impacts on the ability of the extreme poor to escape poverty and its associated ills.

Thinking and working politically emphasizes the importance of understanding the political economy of the countries in which donors operate. However, to achieve the goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030, we must also analyze the political economy of the countries that constitute the developed world. Rhetoric aside, are they prepared to make the tough choices that increase prospects for those living in the developing world to escape poverty?

Such a commitment involves more than just agreeing on specific global targets or levels of development assistance. Rather, these tougher choices involve such contentious issues as tempering subsidies, opening markets to exports from developing countries, facilitating the expedited transfer of technology and recognizing that poor countries are not in the same position as their wealthier counterparts when it comes to addressing the challenges of global climate change. We must acknowledge that vested interests in developed countries too often have prevented policy choices that could dramatically change the lives of the poor. Consequently, we must also think and work politically in our own backyards.

Despite the emerging international consensus that the eradication of extreme poverty is within reach, we should not assume that this goal will be achieved easily through technological fixes or additional development resources. Ignoring the politics associated with poverty eradication is a recipe for disaster. However, this should be neither a cause for despair nor an excuse to do nothing. Instead, we must continue to focus attention on big picture considerations and develop strategies that are politically smart for dealing with the real-world contexts where the poor live and where those who seek to help them operate.


Larry Garber is a senior adviser in the Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning. The views expressed in this essay are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government

1 “United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (2014).”

2 PovcalNet: The online tool for poverty measurement developed by the Development Research Group of the World Bank (

3 D. Acemoglu, S. Naidoo, P. Restrepo and J. Robinson, Democracy Does Cause Growth, NBER Working Paper 20004 (2014).

4 This set of characteristics is drawn from recent publications on thinking and working politically, including most notably D. Booth and S. Unsworth, Politically Smart, Locally Led Development (ODI, May 2014). See also USAID, Local Systems: A Framework for Supporting Sustained Development (2014); D. Hudson and A. Leftwich, From Political Economy to Political Analysis (DLP, June 2014).

5 The Asia Foundation, Built on Dreams Grounded in Reality: Economic Policy Reforms in the Philippines (2013).

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