Can democracy work for the poor?

by Wade Rathke

Thursday, September 10, 2020

New Orleans   We can answer the question of whether or not democracy can work for the poor, or we can ask why democracies are failing the poor? Either way, the answer is uncomfortable for many who would think the question is easy, but the question is serious, largely because democracies are in fact failing the poor.

The Yale economist, Rohini Pande, asked these questions in Science recently, which seems a strange place to find such a critical question, but better there than nowhere. Her piece is titled towards the academic and scientific community of her colleagues, so her touch is very gentle in assigning responsibility or solutions, but once she has opened Pandora’s box, we can handle the finger pointing.

It starts with the contradiction that the World Bank and most development aid for a number of years has been restricted to what they classify as low-income countries, in Latin America for example for a long time that has meant only Nicaragua and Bolivia, despite the fact that huge numbers of the poor are concentrated in countries now classified as middle income. India, she notes, is a perfect example, claiming to be the world’s largest democracy, but also “home to the largest number of extreme poor and the third largest number of billionaires.”

Importantly, Pande is clear that the solution is not simply one of “plumbing,” meaning some fixes to the bureaucracy and the distribution systems of government. This is largely because the poor lack the political power and influence to prevent elites and corruption from tilting the scale of pubic goods and services to their own self-interest. This seems inarguable whether in poor or rich countries, as organizers know too well.

Pande’s proscriptions are somewhat standard, though interestingly, backed up by solid studies that legitimize what many of us know on the ground and from common sense. Pande argues for enfranchising the poor, which unfortunately is the opposite of what is happening here and elsewhere. Pande believes that more information and transparency would improve the knowledge and participation of the poor. Pande recommends encouraging the participation of the poor. Pande acknowledges that the barriers are legion and identifies the leverage points for change as the poor, insider elites, and outside actors like international and human rights agencies. I’m less optimistic on the anything other than efforts dealing directly with activating the poor themselves, partially because the difference between elites and agencies is often miniscule.

Indirectly, she argues for resources actually going to direct organizing of the poor, which just doesn’t happen given the service and “plumbing” bias Pande correctly critiques. In fact, Pande relegates the solution that “poor citizens…themselves motivate reform” to the very end of her case, citing protests in the UK, Nepal, and the US in the 60s. If we really want to see the poor get an equal share from democracies, we need to move that to the front of the line and aggressively support their empowerment. That argument might now work in Science, but it sure would work in reality.


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