The development sector needs to tackle the root causes of poverty

It will be impossible to end poverty without replacing the system that creates it, writes Natalie Sharples.

March 28, 2018 · 4 min read
Refugees in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Steve McCurry.

It is impossible to end poverty without replacing the system that creates it. Development shouldn’t just be about sticking plasters over the biggest wounds of destructive political and economic decisions. It should be about tackling poverty at a policy level. To help move this process forward, I’d suggest three things we need to do:

Name the problem

In order to tackle poverty and inequality we need to understand how it occurs. According to 2014 polling, two thirds of British people think the British Empire is something to be proud of. 49% believe countries are “better off” for having been colonised.  Other 2014 research shows that many adults report feeling confused about the causes of global poverty.

Those of us who work to tackle poverty need to take responsibility for accurately describing what causes it. We need to talk about the legacies of both colonialism and structural adjustment, as well as the effects of the existing neoliberal economic order, which enables the mass extraction of wealth and prioritises the interests of elites and corporations over everyone else.

This includes looking at the role of the education system in feeding such bias.  Improving education about global history as well as about Britain’s historic and current role in the world would help us build a more tolerant and informed society.  This could be incorporated at multiple points in the school curriculum and form part of a broader decolonisation of the education system.

Build solidarity to address root causes

The idea that “development” is only about poverty in countries in the Global South is both damaging and irrelevant.  Whilst it is evident in different ways and to different extents, when one in four low-income households in the UK struggle to put food on the table, poverty is clearly not only an issue for countries with low GDP.

We need to connect the dots with the experiences of people across the world to acknowledge the common enemy. Whether it is the people of the UK or the people of Tanzania, our public services are both losing out to tax dodging by big companies and wealthy elites. Whether it’s the older woman in England who can’t access the support she needs to get washed each day, or the woman in Cameroon who can’t afford to take her sick child to a doctor, neoliberal polices and their proponents are damaging lives everywhere.

Once we move away from this outdated notion of “development”, we can encourage people to join with social movements, trade unions, progressive civil society organisations and political parties internationally to tackle the common enemy, and work together to build alternative solutions.

This doesn’t mean we have to stop giving aid but, acknowledging those who are most affected by neoliberalism, we can come to see aid simply as one form of wealth redistribution among many, necessary both within and between countries to compensate those who have been most impoverished by the global economic system.

Make it happen

Understanding our role in the world is an important starting point. But for this to translate into action, we need a government that genuinely contributes to a more equal world. This means insisting on a truly cross-governmental approach that ensures our polices in trade, tax, drugs and climate do not continue to damage the lives of people here and across the world. It also means building mechanisms into government that level the playing field between the voices of the many and the voices of capital. Whilst this won’t be easy, it’s perhaps never felt so possible, with voices in corners as mainstream as the Labour front-bench and the IMF beginning to acknowledge their doubt in the neoliberal paradigm of development.

Natalie Sharples is Senior Policy Advisor for Health Poverty Action and a member of the Labour International Development Task Force.

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