Global Poverty: A 'Radical Rethinking'

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Esther Duflo, professor of poverty alleviation and development economics at MIT, and Abhijit Banerjee, International Professor of Economics at MIT, authors of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, talked about the complicated nature of poverty and how understanding poverty contributes to better policy.

When poverty isn't about food

The subtitle of Duflo and Banerjee's book begins "A Radical Rethinking," and among the first assumptions they say we should rethink is that poverty and starvation are intertwined. They're not, according to Banerjee.

Certainly there are people in the world who are starving, but the average person living under a dollar a day doesn't act as if they're starving. With a little extra money, they don't buy more calories; they might buy more attractive food or a cell phone, but they don't act as if desperate for more calories.

In fact, the destitute probably get too much of just plain calories. It's not always that they don't have access to food; they don't have access to good food, the kind that sustains, nourishes, and promotes health. Right now, aid usually comes in the form of grains that don't provide a wide enough variety of nutrients, but Duflo said that technology might offer creative solutions to the problem.

If the problem is more of nutrition and people are lacking in micronutrients—iron, vitamin A, zinc—the right policy might be more to think about how we can make it easier for poor people to get the micronutrients they need. Maybe there are some technological innovations: packing traditional grains with more micronutrients or packing salt with iron, these kinds of things.

Poorly informed

It's not simply lack of access to nutritional food that reinforces poverty: more damning is the lack of access to credible information. Many governments in developing nations don't have a track record of being honest, or taking pains to educate and empower citizens. The poor don't necessarily know what they're being deprived of, and there usually exists no regulatory apparatus to make sure they're getting what they need—thanks to the law, we know that our cereals come fortified with certain necessary nutrients, for example.

Americans have a healthy distrust of government, but the emphasis is on "healthy." It's quite different elsewhere, said Banerjee.

Many of these states have a reputation for saying things which aren't true, They guarantee this and promise that and don't deliver. There's a natural tendency for people then to be skeptical of government assertions about things. There's a need for government to build up credibility as a reliable, non-manipulative deliverer of information.

Banerjee said that undermined any argument about the poor being responsible for their situation.

First, is it true that the decisions the poor make aren't in their interests, and second, should we blame them for it? I take issue with the second; I certainly don't blame the poor. When I take medicine, it's not because I actually understand the biology of the medicine that I take. I have faith in the system that generates and delivers medicines, and I take them. I believe the doctor because the U.S. medical system is pretty well, run and if you were brought up where many things weren't what they're supposed to be, you'd naturally be skeptical. It's not that we are so much smarter, it's just that we live in a better regulated world; that's part of what keeps us safe from lots of stupid ideas.

Lowered expectations

Another "radical rethinking": we expect too much from the poor. At least in the realm of education, said Duflo. Efforts to provide adequate primary schooling are entirely geared toward social elites, who usually arrive better prepared for a curriculum that proves grueling and unrealistic for the downtrodden.

The curriculum being taught is amazingly demanding and teachers plow through it regardless. Children who arrive without preparation or who are a little younger and maybe the first generation of learners in their family get lost early on and nothing is ever done to try to get them back. 

One way to change it is to be a little bit more realistic with the curriculum. The objective of primary school might be that every child should be able to read and count. Focus on the basic; on these bases you'd be able to identify the brightest of kids, then make sure have access to further education. The system in which kids are educated now is a complete illusion, and in some cases a mockery.