Poverty traps

Exploring the complexity of causation

Describing and explaining are two very different engagements, and yet development experts routinely write as though to describe were to explain. If this were not the case, it would be hard to understand why they have found it necessary to repeatedly describe the lives of the world’s poorest over the past 30 years. Consider the following sentence constructed from numerous writings—for example, by Banerjee and Duflo, Narayan, the United Nations Development Programme, and the World Bank wherein poverty is defined as a state of affairs where someone has access to very little income:

In the world of the poor, people don’t enjoy food security, don’t own many assets, are stunted and wasted, don’t live long, can’t read or write, don’t have access to easy credit, are unable to save much, aren’t empowered, can’t insure themselves well against crop failure or household calamity, don’t have control over their own lives, don’t trade with the rest of the world, live in unhealthy surroundings, suffer from “incapabilities,” and are poorly governed.

Let’s call the above passage Description. Although no one would have ever doubted its validity, it offers little guidance for action. It doesn’t say what is a cause and what is an effect; it doesn’t distinguish between proximate and deep causes; it doesn’t say what is a variable and what is a parameter in the environment in which the poor reside; and it doesn’t say whether those that are variables can be interpreted in samples to “move” together over time (time-series data) or across parameter values at a given time (cross-sectional data).

Above all, the passage doesn’t help to identify the pathways that lead to the state of affairs where description holds. And, yet, an enormous literature has drawn on description to arrive directly at policy prescriptions. It seems that even the Millennium Development Goals and the United Nations’ plans for meeting them reflect this methodological stance.

Despite its length, Description omits at least two items: the sentence should have continued on to say that the poor suffer from a deteriorating natural resource base and high birth rates. These points are kept out of Description because neither reproductive behavior nor the local natural resource base has been of much interest to contemporary development experts, an issue that will be discussed later in this brief.

Dasgupta, Partha
Published date: 
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Series number: 
Special Edition
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