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Social Movements and Poverty in Developing Countries



Poverty and inequality are both products and producers of the prevailing relationships of power in a society. By many definitions, social movements are understood as questioning the nature and exercise of power in society. As such they also play roles in challenging relation–ships of poverty and inequality. This paper explores some of these roles.

The paper first discusses characteristics of social movements—their motivations, emergence and strategies. Languages of justice and rights are far more prominent in social movements than are languages of poverty reduction. Movements rarely take on the mantle of “being poor” as an identity-based grievance, and few movement leaders think of themselves or their bases in this way. Indeed, many movements argue that a policy focus on poverty is depoliticizing and diverts attention from structures of inequality and exclusion.

While this does not mean that movements are irrelevant to poverty, it does imply that to bring the two themes together requires a particular framing of poverty (as more than income-based), of the causes of poverty (as rooted, ultimately, in relationships of power), and of policy (as determined, ultimately, by political processes in which movements are one of many actors). It is from this starting point that the paper argues that movements are in fact of great relevance to discussions of poverty reduction. This is so both because they challenge dominant ways in which poverty is understood, and because their own actions suggest alternative pathways toward the reduction of poverty and inequality.

The paper discusses these relationships by combining livelihoods frameworks and a simple state/market/civil society framework, which help frame the policies and institutional components of livelihoods frameworks as products of the interactions and power relations among actors operating in these three spheres. The combined framework makes social movements and power relationships endogenous to livelihoods and poverty. It also helps map the different points at which movements might interact with poverty dynamics. Indeed, one advantage of the livelihoods approach is that it combines both production and consumption (or production and reproduction) within a single analytical framework. The paper therefore organizes its discussion of movements and poverty around this distinction between production and consumption. On the production side, the paper discusses how movements might interact with both incremental and abrupt shifts in livelihood security, with questions of employment and with the relationships between the macroeconomy and public investment in poverty reduction. On the consumption side, the paper focuses on the links between movements and collective consumption, with an emphasis on housing, shelter, infrastructure and services. Cases are drawn from Bolivia, India, Peru and South Africa.

In the domains of both production and consumption, movements pursue a range of strategies. At the less contentious end of the spectrum, these strategies include direct provisioning as well as co-production with public agencies. More contentious are those strategies that involve negotiation and lobbying, and at the most contentious end are strategies involving outright protest and direct action. Choice of strategy, its relative success and its influence on poverty and inequality vary depending on the context, on the capacities of the movement and on the political regime. As a very general pattern, however, it appears that movement politics are more contentious around questions of production than of consumption, and under political regimes with which movements clearly have an oppositional relationship. More generally, movement-state interactions appear to be most contentious when movements call into question and challenge basic rules that underlie the way that both economy and society are organized. While states are more likely to renegotiate particular projects or areas of expenditure, they are far less inclined to cede ground on basic rules and principles (for instance, principles related to property ownership, stability of contracts to overseas investors, taxation rates and so on).

Historical analogy would suggest that sustained poverty reduction has come from system-wide changes, many of which are institutional in character. Such changes include, for instance, the establishment of taxation systems that redistribute from profits and wages to public investment in services; long-term increases in real wages; and a broadening of access to entitlements that come with participation in the formal economy. In societies of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), there is reason to argue that many such institutions have emerged at least partly as a result of the mobilization and negotiation conducted by broad-based social organizations existing outside the state and political parties. Indeed, one of the most important effects of movements is to induce the creation of new public institutions that contribute to poverty reduction and that favour a certain evening out of power relationships in society. In this sense, just as social movements are endogenous to livelihood, so they are also to state formation. Understood this way, there is little choice but to recognize their importance for poverty reduction.

Anthony Bebbington is Higgins Professor of Environment and Society, and Director of the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University, United States.

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  • Pub. Date: 3 Nov 2010
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD