Who are the poor?

The current issue of Le Monde 2, the week-end supplement to Le Monde, the prestigious French daily, carries an interview with Professor Paul Collier. Along with Jeff Sachs, Paul Collier is one of the acknowledged experts on development economics. Those who follow this theme at the theoretical level will be familiar with the often trenchant scholarly debates between Collier, Sachs and Bill Easterly.

At present it appears that Collier has won the day. Mainly because he appears to offer a more realistic and well-articulated response to the issues. Whereas Sachs relies on the Millennium Goals to work their magic, Collier confronts head-on issues such as governance, peace-building and eco-management.

Paul Collier, Professor of Economics, OxfordThere has also been a shift in the discourse in relation to the question: who are the poor? Paul Collier’s popular book, The Bottom Billion, derives its title from the commonly asserted statistic that one billion people live in extreme poverty which is defined as living on less than one US dollar per day. But the problem with that definition is that it appears to focus too narrowly on the extreme poverty issue. What about those folk who may go to bed hungry each day but don’t qualify under the extreme poverty definition? This is where the United Nations Environmental Programme’s latest report World Resources 2008 helpfully shifts our focus. In this report attention is directed on the 2.6 billion people who live on less than two US dollars a day. All of a sudden discussion of global poverty becomes more inclusive.

Why? Because the 2.6 billion who live on less than two US dollars a day are the people familiar to us from the media. They are the rural poor of India, most of Asia, Latin America and Africa. What Collier and UNEP have in common is a clearly thought-through strategy on how to lift the rural poor out of subsistence level poverty. They make an obvious connection between rural poverty and the enviroment. People who live in rural poverty make their living from the environment. Obvious. What UNEP cogently argues is that any strategy for rural poverty must include three dimensions: eco-managment, good governance, and access to markets. This all makes sense. Management of ecological resources within the context of an entrepreneurial approach to development offers the rural poor a route out of subsistence level poverty.

That has to be good news in the midst of our current preoccupation with the collapse of the global financial system.

It requires compassion to get ourselves started, and enlightened self-interest to get serious.

Paul Collier, Professor of Economics, Oxford

Learn more: Read the Paul Collier Wikipedia entry

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