We often hear of poverty and inequality as hard and static numbers or facts, but rarely are we confronted with the reasons and mechanisms which trap or allow people to move out of this condition. The book launch, “Moving out of Poverty”, which took place on October 3, 2007 at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington D.C., marked the first part a “Moving Out of Poverty” series. The launch brought together experts to discuss the issues of social mobility.
Luca Barbone, Sector Director in the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management at the World Bank, introduced the panel of speakers for the event and said a few words about the “Moving out of Poverty” study. He explained that the project attempts to look at the determinants of moving in and out of poverty as well as the interactions with local empowerment and local democracy. The study is conducted through a methodology that combines quantitative and qualitative assessments, and is based on 17 country studies. Barbone pointed out that the study is now in its final stages, and the bulk of the research will be made available soon.
Patti Petesch, a consultant in the Poverty Reduction group at the World Bank, gave the first presentation, speaking specifically about the Moving out of Poverty book. She pointed out that we should no longer be satisfied with just describing poverty. Rather, we should want to know and understand the reasons some people escape poverty but most stay trapped. The book examines this issue, Petesch stated, through a multi-disciplinary approach which includes contributions from the disciplines of political science, economics, anthropology, sociology, and others.
Next Charles Tilly, a renowned professor of social science at Columbia University, gave the keynote presentation. Tilly focused his presentation on identifying the fundamental processes by which inequality is generated, reproduced and transformed. He stated that inequality and poverty are generated and maintained by the exploitation and opportunity hoarding of certain resources. These are resources that Tilly identified as value generating resources, which have most commonly included coercive means, labor, animals, land, and commitment to maintaining institutions, machines, financial capital, information, media and scientific technical knowledge. When these are in short supply, they lend themselves to exploitation and opportunity hoarding, and thus produce inequality. Tilly explained that land was one of the original value generating resources, and that media and scientific technical knowledge have recently become significant.
Tilly stated that the prevalence of one of these inequality sustaining resources over another strongly affects patterns of individual and collective economic mobility. For example, where coercive means prevail, individuals and groups that acquire arms become more prone to economic mobility. He outlined how different countries have historically experienced inequality due to the prevalence of different resources.
Next Tilly explained the five channels by which mobility can increase, and inequality can decrease: individual passing, new channels, revolution, spillover from economic growth, and categorical boundary passing. Passing, he said, refers to individual movement across a boundary by change of identity. He explained that revolutions can promote mobility by the displacement of the ruling class, yet do not necessarily reduce poverty across whole populations. Another one of the channels, spillover from economic growth, opens new economic opportunities and provides new benefits. Tilly stated that these channels often mitigate or destroy previously existing mainstays of poverty and inequality. Thus, he said, political interventions aiming to reduce inequality should aim at one or more of these pressure points.
Caroline Kende-Robb, Sector Manager for Social Development at the World Bank, was the first commentator. She underlined the fact that social mobility is the core of social development. Also, she pointed out that poverty is not static-- people fall in and out of it, and the challenge is to understand the factors that influence this mobility. In her presentation, Kende-Robb stressed three main points. First, that there is a need for an inter-disciplinary learning approach to understand the dynamic process by which people fall in and out of poverty. Second, that there is a need to better understand the link between macro policies and poverty outcomes. Here, she highlighted the importance of understanding how reforms affect the lives of the poor before, during and after implementation. To this end, Kende-Robb heavily emphasized the importance participatory methods where communities are consulted directly. Such initiatives, she said, have proved that the poor can play a very significant role in evaluating and planning strategies concerning mobility, particularly when this is combined with analysis from other disciplines. Finally, she pointed out the need to better understand how policy making can tangibly affect the poor, taking into account the inherently political nature of the policy making process.
The final commentator was Vijayendra Rao, Lead Economist of the Development Research Group at the World Bank. Rao spoke about his experience in Southern India to demonstrate how democracy can be a strong equalizing factor in a society. He cited the role of technology, (notable the entry of cable television at a very cheap cost), which has equalized genders and classes by assimilating people’s preferences across these categories. Rao also cited how village governance, where it is mandated that a third of seats in Council be reserved for women and another third for lower, formerly excluded castes, has become a truly equalizing factor. Rao explained that in his study of a Southern Indian village over 150 years, he found that there has been an extreme amount of caste mobility, particularly due to land ownership. He explained how in anticipation of land reform and redistribution, many land owners started selling their land, which allowed poorer people to buy it, thus redistributing resources and causing mobility. Rao stressed that this would only happen in a free market democratic system. Rao concluded by stating that while Professor Tilly is right and his categories are useful, the South Indian example demonstrates how democracy, under the right circumstances, and tweaked by the right processes, is inherently equalizing over the long run.
In the question and answer session, audience members provided questions and comments to the speakers.