Social Movements and Poverty in Developing Countries

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Poverty and inequality are both products and producers of the prevailing relationships ofpower in a society. By many definitions, social movements are understood as questioning thenature 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 andstrategies. Languages of justice and rights are far more prominent in social movements than arelanguages of poverty reduction. Movements rarely take on the mantle of “being poor” as anidentity-based grievance, and few movement leaders think of themselves or their bases in thisway. Indeed, many movements argue that a policy focus on poverty is depoliticizing anddiverts attention from structures of inequality and exclusion.While this does not mean that movements are irrelevant to poverty, it does imply that to bringthe 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 (asdetermined, ultimately, by political processes in which movements are one of many actors). It isfrom this starting point that the paper argues that movements are in fact of great relevance todiscussions of poverty reduction. This is so both because they challenge dominant ways inwhich poverty is understood, and because their own actions suggest alternative pathwaystoward the reduction of poverty and inequality.As a heuristic, the paper discusses these relationships through combining livelihoodsframeworks and a simple state/market/civil society framework. Livelihoods frameworks helpto consider poverty in terms of material well-being, power and meaning/cultural identity, andapproach the causes of poverty in terms of access to, and control over, assets and theinstitutional and policy arrangements that structure people’s possibilities. Thestate/market/civil society frameworks help frame the policies and institutional components oflivelihoods frameworks as products of the interactions and power relations among actorsoperating in these three spheres. These same interactions and power relationships determinethe dominant discourses which shape livelihoods and policy in a more general sense. Thiscombined framework makes social movements and power relationships endogenous tolivelihoods and poverty. It also helps map the different points at which movements mightinteract with poverty dynamics. Indeed, one advantage of the livelihoods approach is that itcombines both production and consumption (or production and reproduction) within a singleanalytical framework. The paper therefore organizes its discussion of movements and povertyaround this distinction between production and consumption. On the production side, thepaper discusses how movements might interact with both incremental and abrupt shifts inlivelihood security, with questions of employment and with the relationships between themacroeconomy and public investment in poverty reduction. On the consumption side, thepaper focuses on the links between movements and collective consumption, with an emphasison housing, shelter, infrastructure and services. Cases are drawn from Bolivia, India, Peru andSouth 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 wellas co-production with public agencies. More contentious are those strategies that involvenegotiation and lobbying, and at the most contentious end are strategies involving outrightprotest and direct action. Choice of strategy, its relative success and its influence on poverty andinequality vary depending on the context, on the capacities of the movement and on thepolitical regime. As a very general pattern, however, it appears that movement politics are morecontentious around questions of production than of consumption, and under political regimes with which movements clearly have an oppositional relationship. More generally, movementivstate interactions appear to be most contentious when movements call into question andchallenge basic rules that underlie the way that both economy and society are organized. Whilestates are more likely to renegotiate particular projects or areas of expenditure, they are far lessinclined to cede ground on basic rules and principles (for instance, principles related toproperty ownership, stability of contracts to overseas investors, taxation rates and so on).Historical analogy would suggest that sustained poverty reduction has come from system-widechanges, many of which are institutional in character. Such changes include, for instance, theestablishment of taxation systems that redistribute from profits and wages to public investmentin services; long-term increases in real wages; and a broadening of access to entitlements thatcome with participation in the formal economy. In societies of the Organisation for EconomicCo-operation and Development (OECD), there is reason to argue that many such institutionshave emerged at least partly as a result of the mobilization and negotiation conducted by broadbasedsocial organizations existing outside the state and political parties. Indeed, one of themost important effects of movements is to induce the creation of new public institutions thatcontribute to poverty reduction and that favour a certain evening out of power relationships insociety. In this sense, just as social movements are endogenous to livelihood, so they are also tostate formation. Understood this way, there is little choice but to recognize their importance forpoverty reduction.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherUnited Nations Research Institute for Social Development
Number of pages38
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2010

Publication series

NameUNRISD Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper
PublisherUnited Nations Research Institute for Social Development

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Global Development Institute


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