Empowering the Poor:
What Does Democracy
Have to Do with It?
Morally and analytically, there is no more vexing phenomenon than the persistence of mass poverty. Over the past half century, remarkable gains have been made in reducing infant mortality, extending life expectancy, raising levels of income and education, and reducing the incidence of severe diseases (USAID 2003). Huge investments of analytical work, empirical research, and development assistance have been made in the quest to eliminate, or at least dramatically reduce, absolute poverty, which leaves an individual to survive on less than $2 or even $1 per day. Yet absolute poverty persists on a mass scale throughout much of what has been termed, rather euphemistically, the “developing” world. Why?
The perspective adopted here is that the obstacles to the elimination of poverty are heavily, if not fundamentally, political. This is not to deny that poverty is, by definition, an economic phenomenon, resulting from inadequate income with which to live a minimally dignified and decent life and inadequate assets (human, financial, and infrastructural) with which to generate such incomes. Neither is it to neglect the many ways in which social norms and relations structure and reproduce poverty. It is merely to acknowledge that transforming these economic and social realities requires, in large measure, policy responses by the state to empower the poor.
Empowerment implies providing the poor with assets—education, health care, credit, potable water, electricity, roads—that enable them to be productive. It also requires an enabling environment for poverty reduction, including a transparent and efficient state bureaucracy, a fair and accessible justice system, and protection for their property rights (Narayan 2002). When the poor