Friday, 19 September 2014

Poverty: who needs to change?

by Paul Clewett

I find that the done thing when encountering fellow Brits abroad is to start off über polite, gently introduce yourself, then rapidly descend into heated debate about all manner of pertinent contemporary issues. The Second World War, for instance, was standard fare when I studied in Germany.
And so fittingly, four days into my internship at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, I ended up in a bar drinking overpriced San Miguel with an assortment of locals and expats, discussing Britain’s colonial legacy. I was (probably over-enthusiastically) suggesting that British expats in Singapore owe their privileged position vis-à-vis many other migrants in Singapore to more than talent and hard work, and perhaps quite a lot to a head start in the global labour market off the back of a significant period of aggressive imperialism.
This was fairly uncontentious in itself. It’s quite hard for people (who aren’t Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party - UKIP) to claim that the Bengali or Tamil construction worker down the road on low wages and in a workplace that offers little health and safety protection finds himself in that position because he didn’t try hard in school. But it gets much more complicated when we start talking about what this actually means for us as privileged individuals, and equally so for scholars and policymakers.
In March, there was a debate on Duncan Green’s ‘From Poverty to Power’ blog over this precise issue, although you’ll have to bear with me to see the connection. It kicks off with Paul Collier talking about his book ‘Exodus,’ which argues for restrictive migration policy in the North towards selected countries in the South where brain drain can be identified as harming development prospects, an approach that Justin Sandefur sums up as  “deport thy neighbour.”  Sandefur rails against the flimsy evidence base on which brain drain arguments are premised and highlights the paradox that comes with proposing a draconian migration governance regime in the name of realising development ‘freedoms’ in the South.
Despite the opposing views, this whole debate is a product of the development industry’s long-standing bias towards two things in particular: the nation state and the poor. The baseline assumption is that if you are from a poor country,  you automatically shoulder the responsibility of ‘developing’ that country. There will be those who find it quite acceptable that citizens do their duty. But let’s face it, citizenship in its formal sense doesn’t mean quite what a lot of governments would like it to mean. Nor should it: a significant number of people’s lives and therefore obligations, are spread across and in between countries. Their duties and allegiances might belong to business in one, church in another and family in both. The point is, simply coming ‘from’ a place is not enough to label someone duty-bound to ‘develop’ it. Just as the North, the home of development policy, retains its right to set its own priorities and its inhabitants pursue their own livelihood strategies, so must the South be allowed to do the same. The results of policy that is supportive of this livelihoods approach can be quite extraordinary too, see Grace Baey’s recent film Ceria, which documents Ristanti Ningrum’s story, for instance.
But this doesn’t mean that there is no responsibility towards the poor. Nor does it mean that diaspora has no place in development. It is simply that responsibility shouldn’t be set on the terms of the rich, conveniently emphasising the duty of co-nationals or co-ethnics to develop their ‘own’ at the expense of asking difficult questions of the livelihoods of the rich. If we believe in Amartya Sen’s conception of development as freedom, then just as tirelessly as we research and implement strategies to open up the choices of the poor, we should be investigating how the lives of the rich are limiting them in the first place. When we start our car, we should be thinking about the extent to which we’ve just undermined the viability of the local transport system (credit to Doreen Massey for that example).
Our lives across the world are hopelessly intertwined, and it is likely that the richer you are, the further your life is embedded in that complex web of processes and relations that spurs globalisation. The renewed excitement about migration and development is great because it brings this fact home - quite literally for the Indonesian female domestic workers (FDWs) in the wealthy households of Singapore, the focus of ARI’s current work. The Strait of Malacca no longer separates Indonesian rural life from the wealthy across the water. And so the poor and the rich are forced to negotiate power, difference and livelihoods, regardless of how much public debate on these kinds of issues is stifled and suppressed. I think this kind of insight is one of the great, if unforeseen, outcomes of the Migrating out of Poverty programme.

Paul Clewett was the 2014 Research and Communications Intern at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. He was funded by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium to conduct research and uptake work within the Southeast Asia regional programme between May-August 2014.