Could Poverty be History? – or why should you tune in for the WIDER Annual Lecture 20 by Martin Ravallion on 23 March 2016

The WIDER Annual Lecture provides a major 'set-piece' opportunity for a distinguished economist to address a major theme in development economics.

Why is Martin Ravallion an excellent choice for the challenge and the honour in 2016? In this personal view, I want to start from a focus on the ideas, rather than person of the chosen lecturer.

In 2013, in the course of a one-hour lecture at the WIDER Development Conference on Inclusive Growth in Africa, Ravallion presented a tour de force on 'The Idea of Antipoverty Policy'.

Martin Ravallion: Keynote – The idea of antipoverty policy

In this keynote address, he traced the shift in the last two hundred years from the dominant economic reasoning that poverty was inevitable or even necessary to motivate the poor to work, to a near consensus today whereby the head of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim can ask rhetorically ‘Is there anyone today who would not commit to eliminating poverty?’. (Unfortunately the answer to that question is ‘yes and no’. Some of the same political leaders who have committed to ‘leave no one behind’ in signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are also imposing austerity policies which make and keep people poor.)

That lecture was structured around three core arguments:

  • poverty is a ‘social bad’ not a ‘social good’;
  • it can be eliminated;
  • and that public policy can help to achieve this. 

To do so requires, in his terminology, both ‘protection policies’ and ‘promotion policies’.

Ravallion does not conclude his two-century review with easy optimism. There are good reasons—theoretically and practically—why the final elimination of all absolute poverty may well prove particularly difficult, even after most of the work has been done. 

Having presented a case focussed heavily on one major input from Ravallion’s impressive body of work, I do need to backtrack somewhat on my point of entry. I have to say something about his personal achievement and his intellectual approach.

First a disclaimer. I have listened to, met, and even interviewed Ravallion. But as the British TV quiz show University Challenge regularly says ‘… in answering the question in this think piece, there has been “no conferring”’. I have not discussed the article with him.

finds something working in practice and tells you why it cannot work according to economic theory

Ravallion is a great choice because:

  • He is deeply committed to the evidence base of ‘what works’. He does not fit the stereotype of the economist who ‘finds something working in practice and tells you why it cannot work according to economic theory’.
  • He is committed to the driving up the quality of the work conducted by the international financial institutions. Ravallion did this from within the Bank through leading high-quality research and is now able to do it from outside, from a university platform.
  • He is also deeply committed to long-term comparative analysis using the best, and standardized, data. For example, his insistence that the World Bank used a consistent measure for absolute poverty across countries and collected the best possible data on ‘dollar-a-day’ poverty (PPP = purchasing power parity) and, subsequently, US$1.25 per day poverty. It has also been a hallmark of UNU-WIDER’s contribution to insist that development outcome need to be tracked through decades to enable proper analyses of progress on poverty reduction. ‘Direct interventions against poverty in poor places’ seems a singularly appropriate theme for this year’s Annual Lecture. There has been both much hype and trenchant critique regarding the effectiveness of intervention programmes. There is now a body of impact evaluations which can be judiciously assessed to provide an overall picture.

In an incisive critique of William Easterley’s polarization between the ‘planners’ (bad) and the small-scale ‘seekers’ (good), last year’s Annual Lecturer Amartya Sen makes many pertinent points. Whether Foreign Affairs or the Nobel Laureate was responsible for the  review’s title ‘The Man without a Plan’ is not known to me. In contrast, Ravallion does not work from stylized dichotomies. He combines the strength of both approaches—the need for detailed knowledge of what works (and how things work) at local level—and the big picture of how to work towards the eradication of absolute poverty through public policy and market forces.

So, for all the above reasons, I strongly encourage colleagues in the Institute’s network to catch up with the lecture in Stockholm on 23rd March, whether you can attend in person, watch the live webcast or afterwards in the filmed or written up version. Much more could be said, but I will stop in anticipation of the lecture. I expect a significant and considered weighing of theory and evidence and, in the best sense of the words, a debatable thesis. I look forward to what he has to say!