‘Can we really end poverty? A debate on the future of development’

Hannah Loryman reports on this recent debate in London, in which a panel of high-level guest speakers predicted the future of international development policy after the Millennium Development Goals.


Millennium Development Goals

The eight Millennium Development Goals (© jiadoldol/Creative Commons)

The Millennium Development Goals, which are due to expire in 2015, set the goal of cutting extreme poverty (defined as living on under $1.25 a day) by half. As the debate around what should come next continues, some have argued that it should be about ‘getting to zero’, or ending extreme poverty. On 5 December I attended a debate hosted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and intelligence² to mark the launch of the former’s Development Cooperation Report, ‘Ending Poverty.’ In an hour and half five speakers aimed to answer the question of whether it is possible to end extreme poverty by 2030, and how this could be achieved.

The speakers were:

Sabina Alkire – Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, Research Associate at Harvard University and Vice President of the Human Development and Capability Association.

Jamie Drummond – Executive Director and Head of Global Strategy at ONE.

Priyanthi Fernando – Executive Director of the Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka.

Homi Kharas – Lead author and Executive Secretary of the secretariat supporting the High-Level Panel and Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution.

Erik Solheim – Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee and special envoy for environment, conflict and disaster at the United Nations Environment Program.

So, can we end poverty?

Erik Solheim was confident that we can: we have the resources, we know what works and we are making more progress than ever. He argued that we just need to mobilise politics in order to get things done, quoting Nike’s slogan (perhaps not the best people to quote in relation to ending poverty), ‘just do it.’

Homi Kharas was significantly less optimistic. He questioned whether we do actually know exactly what works. He stressed that we shouldn’t be complacent about achieving consensus in the post-2015 strategy, but highlighted the importance of using the momentum of the new agenda to create change.

For Jamie Drummond, this change will only come about when people get out onto the streets and demand it. He argued that ‘there is a war in each one of us between apathy and interest’ and that only if we become less apathetic can we end poverty.

How can we end poverty?

Drummond and Sabina Alkire emphasised the importance of data. Alkire highlighted that improved data availability means that we can now say something about poverty, and that this is a major step forward. Drummond argued that the increasing availability of data to citizens through technology can empower people to hold their governments and the international community to account, and that this could be the key to success post-2015.

For Solheim, the key to eradicating poverty is making the right political decisions at a national level, citing China and South Korea as examples. Debate chair Matthew Taylor questioned whether such political decisions were down to luck. This led to a discussion about how certain types of governments (democratic left-of-centre, communist and regimes from marginalised groups) are often better at creating policies that ‘leave no one behind’. However, it was acknowledged that national politics are difficult to reconcile at an international level.

Priyanthi Fernando highlighted that there are many topics in development that, despite being important, receive little attention. There are massive power struggles within the sector that are rarely talked about, not to mention outside of it, where differences of opinion and personal interests vary even more significantly. She argued that to overcome poverty we must first overcome these obstacles.

Development is not, and never has been, solely about aid. Although the amount of aid being given and received globally has increased massively as a result of the MDGs, it is decreasing in importance. This is due to both the increased availability of other forms of development finance and the fact that the poor no longer live solely in poor countries. These changes mean that it is more important than ever to engage different actors outside of those traditionally involved in development and recognise the significant role that national governments play. As Kharas highlighted, if the post-2015 agenda turns out to be another rich-poor, North-South framework it will ultimately fail.

What is success?

It is important that in the quest to reduce poverty we remember to work within the ‘boundaries of the planet’s capabilities’, and not forget that climate change could undo the progress that has been made. We also need to recognise that the challenges to development are continually evolving. For example, great improvements in life expectancy have led to population ageing, which has brought new complications such as an increase in non-communicable diseases. Inequality also continues to rise which, as Fernando highlights, creates different challenges to those of absolute poverty.

There is also the question of whether everybody living on over $1.25 a day by 2030 – even if achieved – can really be called success? As Alkire emphasised, poverty is multidimensional. Focusing on economic poverty alone ignores the multiple deprivations that people face, such as a lack of voice, education, freedom or opportunity. We therefore need to recognise that ‘getting to zero,’ while possible, is insufficient.

To watch the entire debate online, and find out about future intelligence² events, visit their website.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


Have an opinion on this or another topic? Why not write for our blog? Click here to find out more and get in touch.

One comment
  1. Pingback: 'Can we really end poverty? A debate on the fut...

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.