From Poverty to Power: Oxfam’s Senior Strategic Advisor speaks to Leeds Student

Duncan Green From Poverty to Power, OxfamDuncan Green will be visiting the University of Leeds students on Thursday, 31 January from 5-7pm in the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre. He will talk about about the changing landscape of global development. Oxfam’s chief Strategic Advisor spoke to Beckie Smith about poverty, power and public opinion.

As Oxfam’s Senior Strategic Advisor and former Policy Analyst on Trade and Globalisation at CAFOD (the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), Duncan Green is well placed to share insights into how NGOs work and the global economic situation. Green has challenged some of the methods used by major NGOs, and has made some some fairly controversial statements about the work of Oxfam itself. He has previously called their 2005 ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign an “illiterate view of development” because it was reliant on the idea that if trade, debt and aid were al “sorted out”, poverty would automatically be vanquished. It is the desire to pull together a cohesive view of development thinking that led Green to write From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World, published in 2008.

The book, which features contributions from around 300 people, draws on the work of NGOs, academics and development thinkers, and was the first to do so in such comprehensive manner. However, its publication shortly before the onset of the global financial crisis meant that the world has changed radically since then, and some of the ideas in the book are less relevant to the global situation now than they first were. The crisis has also challenged some of the theories in the book, reflecting the ever-changing face of global development thinking. It is because of these changes that Green has decided to publish a second edition of From Poverty to Power.

Green is currently touring the country to promote the book and share his ideas about poverty and development. Here’s what he had to say when Leeds Student met the man who has said that when it comes to global action, “small is not always beautiful”…

What made you choose to write the first edition of From Poverty to Power?

The motivation was that we wanted to get an overall narrative on development out there, because there isn’t one – or there wasn’t one. NGOs have lots of campaigns, and they write lots of specialist papers on climate change or tax or whatever they’re currently campaigning on, but all the big books on development were written by academics, development economists and so on, so we thought it would be interesting to try to pull together our own version. It was certainly a lot of fun.

Do you think that there has been a shift in public opinion on how to tackle poverty?

There’s been a big shift in thinking within the development world. Things like the financial crisis, climate change, the food price problem, have all made a difference in thinking about in development. And that’s nothing new; development thinking is constantly changing; lots of people are constantly challenging each other and trying to work out what on earth’s going on. In the public at large I think there’s also been shifts, but probably different kinds of shifts. So I think in the public at large there’s been a focus on European decline, there’s quite a strong sense of there isn’t that much of a difference between North and South; people are very conscious that India is the biggest manufacturer in the UK now. Things have changed, and it’s actually much more of a one world with similar issues of inequality and poverty, than what used to be the North and the South. So I think everything’s changed, but in a different direction.

Do you think that’s a positive change?

Yeah, I think the difference between the North and South was always a bit artificial and a bit patronising, so to get away from that is always good.

You’ve written about the emergence of the ‘G0’ – what can you tell us about that?

In 2009, the G8 said ‘it’s not our world any more; we’re going to pass on the baton to the G20.’ And we were perhaps naïve about thinking, well we’re not involving the poorest countries, but at least it’s got countries who were poor recently and have lots of people – and we thought, therefore, that they would get it. But it’s actually not – we’ve been very reluctant to move into all the areas we need to be, that require a multilateral leadership. So what’s happened instead is the G8’s stepped back and no one’s stepped forward. There’s a kind of vacuum, which is what I mean by the G0. We’ve got important issues which just aren’t being dealt with at the moment. And the trade talks which began 11 years ago are still dragging on, they’re going nowhere; there was supposed to be an arms trade treaty, that collapsed; so the multinational system isn’t really delivering. And the sort of problems like can only really in the end be sorted out at a global level. They’re the ones we call collective action problems: if everybody doesn’t tackle climate change, the problem will continue.

Can you see that changing any time soon?

No! At the moment what seems to be happening is you get ‘coalitions of the willing’, to use that phrase. Who will get together on particular issues, which is better than nothing and might actually lead to answers. But you’re not really seeing a dynamic UN, you’re not seeing a dynamic G20 or anything else, you’re seeing quite a lot of drift. So at the moment, there’s lots of good news coming at national level, loads of really interesting stuff in developing countries on rights, women’s representation, tax reform, social spending and welfare systems, but it’s all national. The global system’s not really matching level of excitement or ambition.

 Is that what motivated you to update From Poverty to Power?

The main reason for updating was that we published it just before the global financial crisis, so I wanted to see what lessons were still fair, and what had been overtaken by events. It was an interesting exercise to go back and do that.

 Was it a daunting task?

500 people contributed to the original book in one way or another, and it was daunting to go and reopen that all over again. And to try and make sense of this period of incredible turbulence was daunting, yeah. I’ve scraped a few ideas together!

What sort of reaction have you had to the updated edition so far?

The main thing I’ve been doing is going around and saying ‘this is how I think things have changed’. It’s basically saying, look, development thinking is constantly shifting, and this is how I think it’s shifted in the last five years. I think people like that sense of living body of thought, rather than handing down the runes from the mountain. And it’s fun to bounce off people – and people say, yeah, I can see that, but what about this, what about that? I’ve written several books in the past and this is definitely the most discursive exercise, partly because of the blog. Books are open these days, whereas they used to be closed, final words, and then you could either read it or not; but now the book’s just the start.

What can people expect from the talk?

They can learn new and surprising stuff. For example, the number of overweight people in the world is roughly equal to the number of malnourished people in the world. Road traffic is a bigger killer in developing countries than malaria is, and yet no one works on it in development. If you actually just look at the numbers, sometimes they take you into really weird places, where most people don’t think about it.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know before they come along?

I promise to tell lots of jokes if people come!

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