Will economic growth lead to poverty reduction? I believe passionately that the market will never serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised. This seems to me to be so clear and obvious that it scarcely needs defending! However, I am becoming increasingly worried that such opinions are very much in the minority. The dominant, hegemonic view amongst most of those working in the field of development really does seem to be that economic growth will indeed eliminate poverty.
Following my recent keynote at m4Life on 28th October, at which I argued that we need to develop ways in which mobiles can be used to support marginalised groups, such as people with disabilities, I was very strongly challenged by an African colleague, whose views I respect. In essence, she accused me of being a typical western academic who does not really understand Africa, and that if I did I would know that most Africans wanted economic growth. By focusing on the poorest, she suggested that my views were tantamount to arguing that Africans should remain poor. I felt deeply hurt by these accusations, and am still smarting from their vehemence some two weeks later! I actually don’t know why, they hurt so much, but perhaps it is because I have elsewhere argued strongly that Africa is indeed rich, and that we need to help build on its richness rather than always describing it as being poor! The irony is that the paper I have written on this has continually been rejected by academic journals – quite possibly because it too does not conform to accepted dogma!
I clearly need to learn to express my arguments more convincingly. This is a brief attempt to do so in the form of some basic principles:
- The potential for inequality to increase is inherent within all economic growth.
- Economic growth, defined in absolute terms, cannot therefore eliminate poverty (see my critique of Jeffrey Sachs, for example, in ‘No end to poverty’)
- If economic growth proceeds unchecked, it will inevitably lead to increased inequality that will ultimately fuel social and political unrest at a range of scale
- A fundamental role of states is thus to intervene in the market to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised are not excessively disadvantaged.
- Given that the market serves the interests of the majority of people, it is incumbent on those who care about reducing inequalities specifically also to address the needs and interests of the poor.
- Such an argument can be justified both on moral grounds (that it is just), and also on socio-political grounds (to reduce potential violence)
- With reference to mobile technologies, therefore, all I was doing in my keynote was to argue that companies, entrepreneurs, app developers, and all those claiming to use ‘mobiles for development’ should seek to address the needs of the poor and marginalised, alongside those of global corporations and their shareholders.
- This is premised upon a belief that ‘development’ is about rather more than just economic growth, and includes notions of equality of opportunity and social justice.
These arguments are developed more fully in:
- Godfred Bonnah Nkansah and Tim Unwin (2010) The contribution of ICTs to the delivery of Special Educational Needs in Ghana: practices and potential, Journal of Information Technology for Development, 16(3), 191-211
- Tim Unwin (ed.) (2009) ICT4D, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Tim Unwin (2007) No end to poverty, Journal of Development Studies, 45(3), 929-953
- Tim Unwin (2004) Beyond budgetary support: pro-poor development agendas for Africa, Third World Quarterly, 25(8), 1501-1523