The current trend in antipoverty policy emphasizes mandated empowerment: the poor are being handed the responsibility for making things better for themselves, largely without being asked whether this is what they want. Beneficiary control is now being built into public service delivery, while microcredit and small business promotion are seen as better ways to help the poor. The clear presumption is that the poor are both able and happy to exercise these new powers. This essay uses two examples to raise questions about these strategies. The first example is about entrepreneurship among the poor. Using data from a number of countries, we argue that there is no evidence that the median poor entrepreneur is trying his best to expand his existing businesses, even if we take into account the many constraints he faces. While many poor people own businesses, this seems to be more a survival strategy than something they want to do. The second example comes from an evaluation of a program in India that aims to involve poor rural parents in improving local public schools. The data suggest that despite being informed that they now have both the right to intervene in the school and access to funds for that purpose, and despite being made aware of how little the children were learning, parents opt to not get involved. Both examples raise concerns about committing ourselves entirely to antipoverty strategies that rely on the poor doing a lot of the work.
June 01, 2008