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    Why is it so tempting for livelihood projects to ignore poor people?

    By Julian H Walker, on 9 February 2012

    PHOTO: J. Walker

    Approaches to development which prioritize economic growth have been consistently criticized on the basis of their trickle-down assumptions, and for losing sight of equality as an objective. An ongoing theme in international development, therefore, has been attempts to develop frameworks which ensure that the needs of poor women and men are understood, and catered for, in economic development and livelihood programming.  Yet all too often there seems to be a sort of slippage between the intention of such frameworks and their application, whereby, in practice, they are perversely used to justify the exclusion of poor people.

    One anti-poverty framework which is currently in the ascendancy is the ‘Making Markets Work for the Poor’ (M4P) approach[1]. Championed by major donors such as the UK DfID and the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), M4P was developed in part as a corrective to previous anti-poverty approaches, such as the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach, which,  while it had a strong emphasis on the strategies and assets of poor households, failed to robustly address the structural and institutional constraints that exclude poor women and men from accessing markets and employment.

    In this light, the M4P approach explicitly aims to combine growth with active measures to ensure the access of the poor to markets. Its intention is to foster systemic change focused on the systems of entitlement and the (formal and informal) ‘rules’ or institutions that support or impede poor people’s access to and control over markets.

    Over the last six months I, along with DPU associate Nadia Taher,  have been working with the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in their South Caucasus Progamme[2] (which covers their development assistance activities in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia). This work builds on a long history of collaboration between the DPU and the SDC working on gender equality issues. In this case we are working with the SDC’s Gender and Governance advisor to bring a stronger gender equality focus to their work in the region.

    One of the issues that we are addressing with the SDC team is how to make sure that the eight Economic Development and Employment (EDE) projects that they support in the South Caucasus (which have all been structured using the M4P approach) actively cater to the needs of poor women and men. These eight projects, reflecting the prevalence of poverty in remote rural areas in the South Caucasus, are all in the field of horticulture and animal husbandry, and attempt in different ways to connect village households dependent on farming to urban markets for their produce.

    A critical issues here is that, not infrequently, the NGOs implementing these EDE  projects appear to be working in ways which sideline the inclusion and interests of the poor. Many of the project teams feel that they should primarily focus on support to existing private sector enterprises (including, in some cases, established international businesses), but are hesitant to work with the poorest women and men farmers or agricultural labourers.  Ironically, the justification for this approach is typically that to work directly with poor women and men would contravene the principles of the M4P framework, which proposes a ‘light touch’ facilitative approach, working with existing actors and processes, rather than interventions which create new processes and institutions, which are dependent on the project and may therefore be unsustainable. Whatever the justification, the outcome is odd for poverty focused projects when,  for example, it is seen as in keeping with the M4P framework  to purchase lorries for an established dairy processing business, while direct interventions such as support to the creation of cooperatives or famers associations, or start up grants or loans to poor households are disallowed on the basis that they are ‘unsustainable’.

    In other cases, project interventions prioritize the interests of growth, but do not attempt to promote equitable access to the wealth created. For example one project focuses on supporting established businesses to develop fruit processing in high quality fruit value chains, arguing that this will create wage labour (casual agricultural labour and work in processing facilities), but envisages no interventions to support the rights and labour conditions of a casual agricultural labour force, despite the fact that this is a labour force which is notoriously vulnerable to poorly paid and exploitative working conditions.  Thus their interpretation of the systemic change envisaged by M4P appears to be about changing the systems of market access for medium sized business, while leaving the systems whereby agricultural labours are exploited untouched.

    The SDC are aware of these issues, and, in response, have been stressing that there is space within the M4P framework for a more active, rights based interpretation. For example, they point out that the M4P approach advocates working with a full range of ‘market players’ – and, while it is important to work with the private sector in the interest of economic growth, rights based and pro-equality interventions also require working with other market players, specifically supporting civil society and government bodies working on issues related to labour rights, governance, and market regulation, or producers associations which protect the rights and negotiating capacity or women and men engaged in farming.

    So why, in this case, is it that the application of pro-poor frameworks such as M4P often lead, in practice, to pro-business interventions which sideline the poor?  Is it that models of growth-led development are so embedded in our minds that we can’t take alternative forms of enterprise, such as cooperatives, or state regulated markets, seriously? Or that the ways in which the performance of economic development projects are measured (for example economic return on investment) mean that a truly pro-poor orientation will always score badly in the short term? Or that poor people are difficult to reach, because they don’t fit into neat organised associations which are easy to work with, and conform to the requirements of our framework? Or that dealing the institutions that underpin poverty requires confronting vested interests, and sensitive political structures that project teams feel are ‘out of reach’? Whatever the reason, it seem very clear that however sound frameworks  such as M4P are on paper, we need to apply constant critical scrutiny to what they deliver in practice, as they have a tendency to create a new logic all of their own when they hit the real world.