Reflecting Change

The Second Edition of ‘From Poverty to Power’

Duncan Green

Updating a book on contemporary events can be unnerving. In the intervening years, events and new thinking combine to expose the weaknesses of any text. Even more so with a book like ‘From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World’ (henceforward, FP2P), whose second edition has just been published. In trying to present an overall NGO narrative on development, it offered a particularly rich variety of hostages to fortune.

FP2P’s core argument was that the driving force behind development (understood in the Sen formulation as ‘freedoms to do and to be’) is a combination of active citizens and effective states. Why active citizens? Because people living in poverty must have a voice in deciding their own destiny, fighting for rights and justice in their own society, and holding the state and private sector to account. Why effective states? Because history shows that no country has prospered without a state than can actively manage the development process in terms of infrastructure, rule of law, human capital and industrial upgrading. In addition, the first edition stressed the importance of inequality and redistribution, both in terms of social and economic waste, and social justice.

The three shocks, and a slow-motion train wreck

What’s new in the second edition? An update chapter covers the main events of the intervening years, which it identifies as three shocks: the global financial crisis; the food price spike(s) and the Arab Spring; and a slow-motion train wreck in the form of climate change.

The global financial crisis was a watershed event, triggering historic geopolitical change, including the shift from G8 to G20 and the rise of the emerging powers. It drew attention to the risks of an excessively ‘financialized’ global economy, but failed to lead to a reining in of the excessive size and volatility of ‘hot money’, condemning us to future financial crises, possibly starting with Europe in the coming months. More broadly, the advent of the G20 has failed to re-energise the multilateral system, with global talks on climate change, trade and arms control all paralysed. Some commentators are even talking of a ‘G zero’, with no one in charge.

The food price spike, which in many countries traumatized the lives of poor people to a much greater extent than the financial crisis, reversed a decades-long trend of low and falling prices, thus threatening the long-term progress on hunger and nutrition.  This has led to renewed attention to food security worldwide, but with some unfortunate side effects such as ‘land grabs’ across the developing world by investors from rich countries.

The Arab Spring confirmed the importance of active citizenship in processes of change, and made us think much harder about the role of women (who were very active) in Islamic contexts, along with the granular and complex nature of social movements.

But an even more intriguing aspect of updating the book has been trying to identify how these events, along with the research and ‘public conversation’ of the development world, have changed the way we think about development.

Taken together, the three shocks, along with the growing frequency of extreme weather events, have made us much more aware of the impact of volatility, risk and vulnerability on the lives of poor people. That leads both to a focus on building resilience, and trying to dampen or prevent them in the first place. Shock absorbers, from social protection to food reserves to ‘circuit breakers’ in financial markets, have become a much more central part of the development debate.

Accounting for complexity: shifts in thinking and communicating

But it goes deeper than that. The unpredictability and systemic nature of the shocks has driven home the inadequacy of development thinking predicated on linear processes of change. That raises real challenges for traditional systems of planning and measuring results. Oxfam recently sent a complexity physicist to visit its programme in northern Kenya, and the insights from this kind of interdisciplinary work are likely to play an important role in transforming our thinking in coming years.

A further consequence of systems thinking is that we are trying to work out the implications of seeing the world’s ecosystem as a closed system, operating within clear planetary boundaries. Kate Raworth’s work on how to combine these planetary boundaries with a ‘social floor’ has great promise in this area.

Over the last five years, the nature of authorship itself has been transformed by technology. The From Poverty to Power blog, initially launched to promote the first edition, has rapidly acquired a life and readership of its own. It has also provided the first draft of many of the updates incorporated into the second edition. Twitter has only added to the daily churn of links, ideas and opinions. Wrestling to impose a coherent narrative on the greatly increased information flood is one of the growing challenges of authorship.

So how has the first edition survived the assault of history?

I think the central argument still holds—that development happens primarily through the interaction of citizens and states, with aid and the global system playing only a second order role. However climate and finance are two examples of collective action problems that cannot be resolved at national level. The paralysis of international action in those areas is perhaps the darkest cloud on the development horizon, threatening to reverse sixty years of unprecedented human progress.

Inequality and redistribution have become far more mainstream debates, with even the IMF weighing in on how high levels of inequality imperil both growth and stability. Tighter constraints placed by ecosystem boundaries (for example on the right to pollute), further heighten the importance of who gets which slice of the pie.

Many people, both inside and outside Oxfam, have questioned the absence of the private sector from the citizen-state binary. My response has been that an effective state creates the enabling conditions in which private enterprise can flourish. However, I now think that I, along with many others, confused and conflated the roles of private sector, markets, and economic power. The lacklustre response to the financial meltdown has demonstrated the central role of economic power, and we do need to make the visibility and regulation of economic power a more central part of our narrative.

Finally, one area of the first edition has expanded enormously in the last five years, its focus on ‘how change happens’. Better understanding of processes of change, and the accompanying analysis of the distribution and redistribution of different kinds of power within change processes, is rapidly becoming a central component of development thinking at Oxfam and many other development agencies. It is also the subject of my next book—now there’s a hostage to fortune!

Duncan Green is the author of the book From Poverty to Power and Oxfam GB’s Senior Strategic Adviser. For more see

WIDERAngle newsletter
November 2012
ISSN 1238-9544