Pro-poor strategy: A myth or reality?

THE contemporary political economy has been epitomised by new terms that describe poverty, development and growth.

Misheck Gondo

Among these terms which are said to be used by most nations around the world, “pro-poor” strategy is one of the much featured frameworks being used as a political backbone by most African states.

But one wonders if it is a strategy for real or one of the exit paths for politicians to draw people into thinking that they are part of the national cake.

The term “pro-poor growth” has recently become pervasive in discussions of policy development. Despite widespread use of the term, there is much less consensus as to what exactly pro-poor growth means, let alone what its determinants are.

According to Kakwani 2000, growth is pro-poor if the accompanying change in income distribution by itself reduces poverty. However, this definition is rather restrictive; growth is pro-poor if the poverty measure of interest falls. Other schools of thought have got the thinking that pro-poor encompasses a high growth rate of average incomes; a high sensitivity of poverty to growth in average incomes; and a poverty-reducing pattern of growth in relative incomes.

In simple terms, pro-poor is when the government set policies that uplift the poor, a situation in which any distributional shifts accompanying economic growth favour the poor, meaning that poverty falls more than it would have if all incomes had grown at the same rate, in this case the incomes of the poor grow at a higher rate than those of the non-poor. The growth process is said to be “pro-poor” if and only if poor people benefit in absolute terms, as reflected in an appropriate measure of poverty.

There can be no doubt that economic growth is critical in reducing poverty. However, the question is what kind of poverty it reduces? Does it really improve life or is most of the improvement obvious on statistical databases than in the real world, even though people are having a little bit more money?

A pro-poor strategy is, in its real sense, about involving the poor in making policies, in decision-making and further in implementation coupled by other tenants such as the rule of law, democracy and good governance in which the poor are not only free to participate in enacting policies, but in enjoying the fruits of such policies as well. The pro-poor strategy goes further in understanding the poverty level of a country and also knowing what measure of poverty should be used.

Understanding the characteristics of poverty is very critical in policy formulation, however most African countries, Zimbabwe included, tend to create a shield towards growing poverty, shunning proper research to understand the causes of poverty; this is done to maintain the status quo, not willing to accept the real situation on the ground. Failure to accept is one of the characteristics of developing countries such as Zimbabwe; instead of having internal introspection of challenges facing the economy such as corruption, bad governance, hefty salaries for senior civil servants, the government tends to exponentially put blame on foreigners for some problems that are internally focused. It is common knowledge that every government must analyse the negative forces and external factors that have the potential to worsen poverty levels in their country, but at the same time it has to put effective measures to consolidate its strength to eradicate poverty.

How can one reason on the fact that some individuals in parastatals are receiving more than US$500 000 in salaries — money enough to pay more than 600 teachers, at the expense of service delivery? Furthermore, nepotism is the order of the day which is being championed by ministers — the case of Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo, who is allegedly protecting Harare Town Clerk Tendai Mahachi, being an example.

Basing on false data, most poor countries came out with what they call pro-poor strategies that are purely meant to blind the citizens in believing that the government is pro-people. In the case of Zimbabwe’s pro-poor strategy in the form of land reform programme, the poor are far from benefitting from the scheme yet elites are the ones taking the larger chunk of the national cake at the expense of the proletariat.

The other question is whether poverty eradication strategy differs in relation to the manner in which a nation is governed. Democracies and dictatorships are likely to create different policy choices. Although they are not perfect political institutions, each political arrangement is likely going to favour some group at the expense of the other. Authoritarian political systems such as oligarchies, dictatorships, absolutist monarchies and autocracies concentrate power in the hands of the political minorities and tend to pursue economic policies that are favourable to minorities called the “elitists”.

Using the modern theory, most nations in Africa are stagnated at a substance level, in which there is non-growth and they remain at pre-modern income level due to governance challenges, ethnic conflicts, dependency, unclear foreign policies, and lack of political will among other tropical tenants that hinders effective growth.

In this set-up, the government craft “pro-poor” policies that are meant to silence the majority who are poor. The policies will be implemented theoretically for the poor and practically for the elites; by so doing wealth accumulation is realised to those with political connections or those linked to the ruling class. It will take much effort for the poor to realise that they are not part of any developmental strategy, but are only being used to appear as if development is centred on them.

If the poor later realise this, that’s where initiatives such as people’s revolutions, wide protests, quest to change the ruling class will receive a wider and louder call.

The problem with changing the ruling class without changing institutions and policies is that most opposition parties in developing countries have the same characteristics with the ruling regimes in such a way that they seek to perpetuate oppression, accumulation of wealth, and corruption in hidden ways that will be done in a more sophisticated and “democratic” manner in which laws will specify how things should be done, yet on the ground there is perpetuity of the former.

Making growth pro-poor requires a combination of more growth, a more pro-poor pattern of growth and success in reducing the antecedent inequalities that limit the prospects for poor people to share in the opportunities unleashed in a growing economy. The ideal combination will naturally vary with country circumstances.

In some countries, attention can safely focus on the overall rate of growth to assure rapid poverty reduction. Other wiser dictatorships use very good documents that are crafted by policy experts to obtain the confidence of the people, yet on the ground no resources will be available to support such blue-prints.

Zimbabwe has adopted the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation document that has several ways to take the economy back to its feet. If one goes through this document, the only option will be to have confidence in the ruling government, as it appears to be more pro-poor.

However, the question which is not addressed is how possible to achieve pro-poor growth in a nation with a negative foreign relations while the real growth is now termed under the auspices of globalisation.

How then poverty is eradicated in a country with stratospheric rates of corruption emanating from the benches of the ruling class? How pro-poor will the agrarian reform in which one is allocated a piece of land without enough inputs and satisfying markets?

Taking a walkable example of our staple food which is maize, one need not to be a mathematician to calculate the costs of farming and the price given by Grain Marketing Board (GMB), a government parastatal. One does not even need to go further to interrogate the salary structures of such an institution.

Is pro-poor strategy in developing countries a myth or reality? This is a question which needs an introspective analysis in relation to political economies of the world.

However, there are many things that governments can do to ensure more pro-poor growth. A high priority must be given to public action that can help poor people acquire the skills and maintain the good health needed to participate in the growth process; policies that help ensure the poor can also help underpin their longer-term prospects of escaping poverty.

There are often biases against the poor in taxation and spending policies, such as in the allocation of infrastructure spending. Sound micro and macroeconomic policies and openness to international trade should be at the heart of pro-poor growth strategies, but this becomes a reality when the government is willing to shift its foreign policy to accommodate recommended international standards at the same time not compromising its right to sovereignty as enshrined in its domestic policy.

Some ingredients of sound growth and poverty reduction strategy are high savings and investments rates, resource mobility and strong political commitment for improving economic welfare. The challenge for policy is to combine growth-promoting reforms with the right policies to ensure that the poor can participate fully in the opportunities unleashed, and so contribute to that growth. Get the combination of policies right, both growth and poverty reduction can be rapid; get it wrong, both may well be stalled.

The government should be willing to accept reality on the ground, prioritise dialogues with opposition parties in the country, and include the civil society, the youth, women and students among others in finding lasting solutions to frame up strategies that are pro-poor.
Let’s wait and see.

Gondo is an international relations expert with the University of Zimbabwe.