Poverty and Elusive Development

Banik, Dan
Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, 2010, ISBN: 978 82 15 01218 6, 297 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Olivier Rubin
Department of Society and Globalisation, Roskilde University

In Poverty and Elusive Development, Dan Banik explores reasons for the elusive progress in key development areas: tackling corruption (chapter 3), democracy (chapter 4), human rights (chapter 5), climate change (chapter 6) and development assistance (chapter 7). In each of the chapters, comprehensive literature reviews introduce the development topics, and form the basis from which Banik shares his insights gained from a decade's worth of fieldwork in Africa and Asia. This makes for an impressive academic textbook that holds significant value even for academics and practitioners who are familiar with the topics discussed. For such proficient readers, a little patience is required before the chapters proceed to present Banik's own findings and observations; such patience will be amply rewarded, however.
Wisely (and thankfully!) Banik steers free of the ongoing debate about the effectiveness of aid, instead concentrating on broader political economy issues that might account for the lack of development. Two such issues, in particular, appear to cut across the different chapters of his book.
The first is the need to address the local structures and incentives that facilitate the continuation of poverty and inequality. Banik argues, there has not been much interest in fundamentally changing these local structures, because politicians, local elites and donor societies share incentives that favour the status quo. Banik shows how local elites appear to give primary importance to the protection of negative rights at the expense of promoting positive welfare rights that would mostly benefit the poor. Politicians, even in democracies, also have incentives to ensure that the poor remain poor thereby reproducing a paternalistic political structure where votes are exchanged for short-term protection and patronage. Banik blames donor societies which attempt to promote development without recognising that there are simultaneously other (often powerful) actors who continue to produce, and benefit from, poverty. He identifies a donor culture where it is possible to speak of poverty reduction in developing countries without taking issue with the fundamental structures and inequalities within such societies that produce poverty in the first place. Hence, human rights approaches are proclaimed rather than implemented, and democratisation is praised without due attention to whether political rights actually play a beneficial transformative role in the different societies. Corruption is widely viewed as one of the most crucial obstacles to development; in contrast Banik sees corruption as a symptom (rather than a cause) of deeper structural problems and imbalances.
The second issue is the importance of not just poverty and equity but of equality. For Banik, radical inequalities within local societies are one of the major explanations for the creation and continuance of human deprivation. Thus, socio-economic inequality is the cause (rather than merely the outcome) of deprivation. By focusing on inequality, Banik interestingly expands his analytical lens to also include the wealthy as an integral part of the development agenda. From his fieldwork, Banik provides rare insights into the mindset of the local elites. Although altruistic to a degree, they do not necessarily want genuine and far-reaching improvements in the lives of the poor, and in some cases they derive immense pleasure from the fact that there are large groups of people who do not have access to the same privileges as them. A common view among local elites is that a paper-thin line of accumulated wealth is all that separates them from a life in the slums. They also fear the social stigma in case they are observed to closely associate with poorer groups. Thus, relative wealth is just as fundamental for the self-perception of the wealthy as relative poverty is for the poor. Being blind to these issues of inequality is, in Banik's view, one of the major reasons that development continues to remain elusive.
Covering such a wide range of development topics, the quality of the different chapters is bound to vary. Banik's discussion of development ethics in chapter 7 is particularly compelling. The ethical aspect, often overlooked in the development debate where it drowns in discussions of effectiveness and efficiency, is here given full attention with Banik's attempt to expand the moral obligation of assistance to also encompass broader structural transformations. Chapter 6 on climate change, on the other hand, appears somewhat disconnected from the other chapters with a rather polarised (and almost caricatured) juxtapositioning of the views of a technology fundamentalist with that of a Gaia adherent. However, even in this weaker chapter, Banik powerfully displays, through a detailed case-study of the local problems in tackling pollution from tanneries in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, how translating climate change agreements into local action could very well be the biggest challenge in the years to come.
The book contains many well founded and thought-provoking arguments and rarely do you encounter great inconsistencies. I do have a small quarrel with Banik when he rightly argues that freedom can exist without democracy but not vice versa (p. 92), but then proceeds to claim that formalistic electoral democracies provide a necessary but not sufficient condition for promoting socio-economic rights and freedoms (p. 97). These two statements appear to be in contradiction: although democracy might indeed be an effective way for promoting economic rights and freedoms, it does not constitute an absolute necessity (just think of South Korea and China).
These minor objections aside, Banik has written a very rich and extremely valuable monograph in the field of development studies that touches on many more issues than can be dealt with in this brief review. One such issue is Banik's warning about the excessive use of buzzwords in the development vocabulary that are short on content and have little practical use. Despite the general merit of such advice, the term ‘elusive development’ is unfortunately not likely to become dispensable in the near future unless the vital political economy issues highlighted by Banik are better addressed in policy design and implementation.