Vol.7 No.9, 09 May 2007

How to Takle Poverty: lessons from abroad

Women Learning Lessons from Abroad

Margaret Legum

First lady Zanele Mbeki took a small group of women, six months ago, to two countries that have over-fulfilled the first MDG goal of halving poverty by 2015. Surprisingly, the results of that study tour have had very little public exposure. The countries were chosen because of their similarity to South Africa - middle-income market-based economies needing to address historic divisions and large income disparity - and because of their notable success in effectively addressing poverty.

The study tour arose from the formation of SA Women in Dialogue (SAWID) in 2003 out of Zanele Mbeki’s office; and its decision to focus on Poverty Eradication. SAWID’s initial research brought to light the relevant experience of two countries. Tunisia has reduced poverty from 12% in 1992 to 4% in 2006; Chile had 40% of its people living in poverty in 1990; and reduced that figure to 18% by 2005.

Those results deserve serious attention in a world where notable success in poverty reduction is rare; and where economic success is generally measured in terms of overall GDP, regardless of how it is distributed. GDP growth is often experienced on the ground as accompanied by deepening poverty, the calculation of which is something of a thumb-suck. So the first lesson the delegation learnt is the need for agreed official measures for poverty and indigence.

The SAWID group endorsed the definition of poverty as relating to eight factors: income, education, health, housing, family dynamics, self-identification, social participation and having paid employment or a livelihood.

Perhaps the key finding is that, in both countries, people living in poverty are identified as a target group rather than offered support along with everyone else. Second, the targeted groups are provided not just with money but with ‘psycho-social support, and a basket of services, through family social workers’. Third, access to all this is by way of a social contract agreed with the family.

This is a radical contradiction of current norms suggesting that poor people should not be stigmatised by specific identification through means testing. It contrasts, for instance, with the universal BIG idea. It is justified by reference to the finding that in many countries which have been traumatised by political oppression over generations, poor people have burdens much deeper than simply lack of resources. They have become severely depressed, demoralised and alienated from their own capacity. That needs special treatment, aside from access to money.

In both Chile and Tunisia, therefore, specialised ‘psycho-social’ community workers have been trained to work intensively with families that live in poverty. Through them poor families get access to what is needed to get them out of poverty in terms of the eight factors defined above. And for that to work, families are required to agree a contract in terms of their own contribution and behaviour. For instance, their children must be vaccinated and go to school, adults must take advantage of skills training on offer and addictive behaviour must be addressed.

This programme has had a remarkable effect on poverty rates. It is overseen by a Ministry of Planning, which operates a Solidarity Fund, to which all citizens are encouraged to contribute, and through which volunteering of all kinds is encouraged. Tunisia also has a specialised Ministry for Women not only because women are invariably at the bottom of the poverty heap everywhere, but because women are most effective, once motivated, in bringing families out of depression and delinquency.

The SAWID group has a number of recommendations for the SA government. Perhaps the most controversial will be targeted treatment for poor people. This is justified by a quote from Muhammad Yunus: ‘Like good old Gresham’s law…if one mixes the poor and the non-poor in a programme, the non-poor will always drive out the poor…and the non-poor will reap the benefits.’

It is justified also by the understanding that where extreme poverty and exclusion have become multi-generational, poor people need special attention to their capacity for self-belief. It is surely beyond question that in South Africa, such specialised family social workers would be something like a godsend to schools, clinics, child-headed households, community facilities, HIV education facilities – all of which struggle to deal with multiple problems, each of them needing close attention over time.

Resources to train such an army of support workers would need a national consensus – as apparently there is in those countries – to eliminating poverty as the over-riding purpose of all government. It is not an objective, but the objective. Training family workers could fit rather well into the Expanded Public Works programme; and public consensus could be canvassed through the public report back process for the APRM County Report.

An important spin-off would be free health and education to tertiary level for everyone who needs it, and so a major contribution to building human capital.

Other recommendations include widespread access to micro-finance – with family workers’ support, which might improve the success rate of such funds. In both countries governments partner with civil society NGOs, and with the private sector where that makes sense. And both have a developed monitoring process, with five-year assessments of the effect on poverty of these policies.

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© South African New Economics Network 2007. Page generated at 09:25; 22 September 2007