“Responsibilizing” the Poor

An analysis, this time from the left, of why foreign aid programs don’t work.

G overning the Poor: Exercises of Poverty Reduction, Practices of Global Aid is a radical critique of efforts to reduce poverty through foreign aid. Aid, the book says, not only does not reduce poverty; it reinforces it, and it lets the governments of countries where it exists off the hook in terms of alleviating it.

This is not a diatribe like Dambisa Moyo’s ill-conceived 2009 rant, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. Moyo’s answer to poverty at every turn was free market enterprise—trade, foreign investment, microfinance. She even had a chapter entitled “The Chinese Are Our Friends.” Not so, this book. Authors Suzan Ilcan and Anita Lacey, professors at the universities of Windsor and Auckland respectively, have no time for market- and export-led growth and they see microfinance as part of the problem, not an answer. For Moyo, foreign aid subverts market enterprise; for Ilcan and Lacey, it underpins enterprise to the detriment of the poor.

Ilcan and Lacey view foreign aid through a “governmentality framework,” analyzing government as something that extends beyond state laws and policies to the “diverse programs and practices that seek to direct the actions of others.” Hence the title of the book, which sees the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, United Nations aid agencies and international non-governmental organizations such as Oxfam—which becomes a centrepiece in the story—as part of a globalized effort to “govern the poor.” They describe this governance as a means of promoting “advanced liberalism,” a global agenda that ignores social justice and seeks instead to—bear with me—“responsibilize” the poor, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own plight by drawing them into market-oriented solutions and a globalized aid regime. This aid regime is “dense and vast in scope” and has “reconfigured the categories of public and private, welfare, responsibility, and government.” In short, aid agencies, from the World Bank through to Oxfam, are part of a “highly mobile assemblage that knows no particular spaces, rigid boundaries, or stable entities,” all of them working to outsource the responsibility for ending poverty to the poor themselves.

Direct poverty alleviation programs that seek to “empower” the poor through income-generating projects are, according to the authors, the most obvious example of this, but even indirect efforts such as the provision of health care, education and transportation are part of the plot. Microfinance epitomizes the shift from social to private enterprise, part of the new effort to “mobilize the poor and impose entrepreneurial obligations on them.” Fair trade projects too are part of this “governance” project, drawing the poor ever deeper into the tentacles of the globalized market place. Even NGO campaigns aimed at rebalancing international markets that discriminate against poor countries are complicit. Oxfam, perhaps the most outspoken of the world’s large NGOs, is taken to task for a 2002 publication titled Rigged Rules and Double Standards: Trade, Globalisation and the Fight Against Poverty, which argues for an overhaul of the world’s trading system. For example, the Oxfam report says that “if Africa, East Asia, South Asia, and Latin America were each to increase their share of world exports by one per cent, the resulting gains in income could lift 128 million people out of poverty.” In Africa alone,  this would generate $70 billion, “approximately five times the amount provided to the region through aid and debt relief.” Regarded as utopian in some circles, for Ilcan and Lacey Oxfam’s proposals become part of the “advanced liberal” agenda of pulling the poor ever deeper into a globalized system aimed at responsibilizing them. If further proof of Oxfam’s complicity were required, the authors examine its string of income–generating shops across Britain that “[mimic] the trade policies that the organization advocates at the macro level.”

Okay, time out. First, in the interest of full disclosure, I am part of this vast and deep governmentality framework that has been responsibilizing the poor. The authors say the story began in the 1980s, but I started in the 1960s, so I know they are wrong on at least that point. I have worked in NGOs and as a consultant on development projects for governments and UN agencies across Africa and Asia. I have thought a lot about it, and have written several books on the subject. I have been, and remain, deeply concerned about some aspects of the international development enterprise. I think microfinance has been over-advertised and overplayed as a solution to poverty, and I wonder about the hubris in Canadian or German or Swedish NGOs wandering into remote villages with snake oil—aimed at ending entrenched poverty—in the form of two-year projects sold to an individual donor somewhere upstream as child sponsorship, or to an institutional donor on the back of a results-based management matrix. I have become increasingly dismayed as I watch the Canadian International Development Agency sink into a morass of risk-averse mumbo-jumbo, ever ready to serve the commercial, political and strategic priorities of the Canadian government. I thought Bev Oda should have been fired as CIDA minister long ago—not because of the “not” scandal, but because she was responsible for cutting funding to some of Canada’s best aid programs and some of the poorest countries in the world.

I agree with the authors that the structural adjustment programs forced on many developing countries by the IMF, the World Bank and governmental donors during the 1980s damaged their ability to provide basic health and education services to their people. I also subscribe to the idea—which the authors apparently do not—that poor countries need better and more fair trade arrangements with the rest of the world. Sierra Leone used to be self-sufficient in rice—it even exported rice. Today it is a rice importer, much of it in the form of food aid. Part of the reason is that the cost of rice production in Sierra Leone outstrips the price of American-grown rice. Why? Because U.S. government subsidies to American rice farmers totalled $12.6 billion between 1995 and 2009. This is the kind of inequity that Oxfam’s Rigged Rules and Double Standards argued against. And rightly so.

I am not deaf to the idea that aid programs might be excusing the governments of developing countries from dealing with their own responsibilities. This is an old critique, one that usually comes from the right rather than the left, and it is worth examining. BRAC, an impressive Bangladeshi NGO, runs some 35,000 one-room primary schools1. The schools are inexpensive; they are community-based; and they provide a quality of education that is significantly better than what transpires in government schools. There is no Greg Mortensen here, rushing about like a latter-day Lady Bountiful, heading al Qaeda off at the educational pass; no Three Cups of Tea; no quick-fix feel-good opportunity for the $25 donor. BRAC is funded in this effort by a number of international donor agencies. Critics—and I am sure Ilcan and Lacey would be among them—say that primary education is the responsibility of government and, by encouraging BRAC, donors only let the government off the hook for one of its most basic responsibilities. But it is more complicated than that. First, these same donors spend ten times more supporting the government’s primary education system than they do BRAC’s, which, in a sense, serves as a model to which government might aspire. BRAC shows what can be done by dedicated and motivated Bangladeshis. But the story does not end there. BRAC schools deal only with dropouts from the formal system. Three quarters of the students are girls, who make up a lost five-year opportunity in three, becoming literate in the process and learning something about their rights and their place in society. Every year, half a million girls who would otherwise have remained illiterate—the caregivers, nutritionists and teachers of the country’s next generation—gain at least some of the tools they need to make a better future.

BRAC deals with children the formal system has failed. You can argue, as Ilcan and Lacey probably would if they examined the effort, that education must be provided by governments. BRAC agrees, but they believe that until the government can do it, they will rescue as many of the dropouts as possible. They are not outsiders and they do not require lectures from armchair critics about what should be.

Ilcan and Lacey take a whack at microfinance, seeing this in some ways as the ultimate outsourcing of poverty reduction to the poor themselves, and a method of drawing them more resolutely into market economies and a globalized economic system. The authors describe the effects of microfinance in the Solomon Islands as “a tool of human security, privileging partnerships with private and non-state actors.” They argue that “this focus in a nation where four-fifths of residents live by subsistence is pushing them to market.” And not in a good way.

My own view on microfinance is a little different. It is true that if you borrow money, make an investment and repay the loan, you are engaging in some kind of market. But if you live on subsistence farming (or subsistence begging, or subsistence prostitution), you are also operating in a market. Microfinance is simply a new realm. Poor people become involved in microfinance not because they are pushed, but because they are desperate. The promise of microfinance is like the promise in Three Cups of Tea: a quick fix to deep and grinding poverty. The truth is different. There is no quick fix. No $25 loan, no $200 loan, is going to produce a miracle. If wisely invested, it can add to a family’s income. But huge volumes of microfinance simply carry people into what I call the kiosk economy—setting up a stall in the market, or husking rice, or raising a few chickens—things poor people have done from the beginning of time. This is not pushing them to market; it certainly is not pushing them very deeply into a globalized economy; and it is not likely to end poverty any time soon. The answer to poverty is new productive enterprise, if not more jobs in the formal sector. New, productive enterprise. Plus health and education and other forms of supportive infrastructure. Organizations that can introduce workable new ideas in agriculture, for example—building links between inputs and markets across systems where these do not exist—can make a real difference. It is the difference between the way my great-great-grandparents lived when they first arrived in Hastings County and scrabbled to grow enough to keep from starving and the way they lived 20 years later when they could send some produce to market and their children to school.

Governing the Poor has a point to make, but it could have been made in an academic journal article. In a book, the theme becomes repetitive, and is not much illuminated by brief trips to Namibia and the Solomon Islands. The book’s lack of depth and balance on what aid agencies promote is exemplified in repeated references to “pro-poor tourism,” which the authors say is “an area for future research because of the strong trend towards this particular solution to poverty.” Ecotourism has been around for a while, and feckless tourists can certainly take bus trips to Soweto—as they might to a game park. But there is no “strong trend” among donor agencies in this area.

If your only tool is a hammer, you will spend a lot of time looking for nails. In this book, there is basically only one nail, and it is driven home early. After that, it seems like so much repetitive banging: foreign aid, no matter who does it or how, is all part of a global plot to deconstruct the welfare state. Never mind that there never was a welfare state in Namibia or the Solomon Islands, or for that matter most of the poor world.

In reading the book, I kept waiting for the alternative, but it never came. The authors refer to social justice and “life-politics,” but there is almost no exposition of these terms, or examples of what they might mean. There is not much appreciation—certainly no description—of what it means to be poor in a developing country, to live in squalor, to see your children die of starvation or an easily cured illness, to be illiterate and to work as indentured labour and to be treated in ways that destroy self-respect and hope and chance. There is a clear suggestion in the book that subsistence living is better than whatever else is on offer from the Oxfams and the UN agencies that come calling—no matter what their wares.

The book ends with this as the answer: “A social-justice life-politics assumes modes of action and practices that make possible other kinds of actions and practices … Such a life-politics is much more about producing new kinds of questions, new frames of orientation, and new ways of becoming.” New ways of becoming: not exactly something you can take to the bank.


  1. My book Freedom from Want: The Remarkable Success Story of BRAC, the Global Grassroots Organization That’s Winning the Fight Against Poverty (Kumarian Press, 2009) deals in detail with the history and accomplishments of BRAC. It was reviewed in the October 2009 issue of the LRC.