Archive for the ‘Poverty in rich countries’ Category

What “Slumdog Millionaire” Can and Cannot Teach Us About Slums

6 March, 2009

By David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock

Earlier this week the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ won an extraordinary eight Academy Awards, including for best film and best director. Set in the teeming slums of Mumbai, India, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ provides a moving account of a poor orphaned teenager’s quest for recognition and dignity, overcoming numerous obstacles en route to winning the grand prize on a lucrative game show, and in the process the heart of his true love. It’s a well-made and uplifting film; we applaud its success, and extend our sincere congratulations to all those involved in its production. But to the extent the film draws its moral force and emotional energy from its context, what can ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ teach us about slums? More generally, what are the strengths and limitations of cinematography as a medium for conveying complex realities about the causes and experience of mass poverty?

As with most successful films, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ works to the extent it is able to tell a captivating story, in this case drawing on timeless themes of love and yearning, of taking great risks, and enduring injustice and overcoming discrimination, in order to realize one’s heart’s desire. For the central protagonist Jamal Malik, however, the stakes are raised even higher, given his lowly circumstances and lack of education, which make it not only highly unlikely that he will ever have the means or opportunity to extract himself from the squalor of the slum, but more importantly, that he is powerless to prevent his beloved Latika from being taken away, first by a slum pimp, and then by a crime lord. After years of searching fruitlessly for her, she is tantalisingly taken away from him again just as they are about to be reunited. Not knowing how to get back in touch with her, he tries out for the Indian equivalent of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’, which he knows she will be watching. In an improbable—but ‘bizarrely plausible’—manner, Jamal overcomes the odds and wins the show, thereby reconnecting with Latika.

In the end, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is of course just a film, and makes no claim to be a work of social science or a ‘representative’ account of the causes and consequences of living in a slum. But for most western cinema-goers, however, such films—like ‘City of Joy’ and ‘City of God’ before it—are a rare chance to see a portrayal of the circumstances encountered by tens of millions of poor people in developing countries every day. To this extent, even if such films are primarily concerned with entertainment and profit-making in less than a two-hour timeframe—and mainly follow a neat, conventional and arguably quite conservative narrative arc of struggle and ultimate redemption that inherently appeals to emotion (as opposed to ‘empirical evidence’) and often works via crude individualistic juxtapositions (good guys vs. bad) —they arguably nevertheless offer some insight into the lives of others living elsewhere, which can only be a good thing. The question, then, is whether they can be said to convey an accurate picture of slum life.

In this regard, although we are far from being film experts, we have collectively spent many years studying slum life up close in Latin America, South Asia, and—to a lesser extent—the Caribbean. In our view, films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’—perhaps more so than any other medium—give outsiders a rare sense of the vibrant energy, frenetic pace and ‘ordered chaos’ of life among the poor in urban settlements. Carefully done, such films can provide instructive insights on the precarious state of many slum dwellers’ lives (i.e., the constant threat of conflict, illness, the confiscation of precious assets), of the immense influence wielded by the powerful, of the paradoxical role played by the police (simultaneously part of the problem and solution), and yet also the full range of emotions that the inhabitants of slums endure like any human being—from abundant joy and hope to relentless grief and enduring sadness. If these features seem contradictory, then that is just another feature of slum life. Good novels, such as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, stress precisely these issues, but rely on the power of imagination to concoct scenes that are far removed from most readers’ own direct experience; a good film—even when its screenplay is adapted from a novel, as is the case of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, based on Vikas Swarup’s Q & A—can convey that reality like none other.

Cinema-goers should not think, however, that films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ provide a full account of why poor people are poor (‘it is fated’) or a basis on which to respond to it (‘get motivated, take a chance’). Unlike the questions on game-shows such as ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’, the answers to questions pertaining to grinding urban poverty can’t sensibly be reduced to multiple choice options. The existence of slums is not merely the product of individual actions writ large, but large structural forces of industrialization, inequality, politics and migration writ small. How, why and the extent to which these forces play out in different regions, countries, and states is properly the subject of detailed historical and social scientific analysis. There is no single ‘answer’ as to what can be done to enhance the welfare of slum dwellers, but neither is social science mute or indifferent. Guaranteed work programmes, identity registration schemes, securing property rights, citizen report cards to enhance service delivery, micro-credit systems, innovative criminal justice facilities and the involvement of the poor in urban design are all responses that have made a constructive difference in the lives of slum dwellers, in part because they are more often than not context-specific responses to a deeply complex problem.

The success of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is a signature accomplishment for the British film industry, and should be recognized and celebrated as such. But it should also be encouraged and applauded as a form of artistic representation that raises peoples’ general awareness of how millions of poor people live. Such awareness is not only important in its own right but also because it is part of the process by which broad political constituencies for change are forged. The issue is thus not whether ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has represented urban poverty ‘better’ than social scientific or policy-oriented analysis, but rather how different kinds of knowledge convey different kinds of issues for different kinds of audiences. A judicious integration of popular and formal representation can be the basis of both enlightening entertainment and solid public policy.

Around the World with Joseph Stiglitz

1 December, 2008

BWPI Chair and Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz has a new documentary just out. ‘Around the World with Joseph Stiglitz’ is a hard-hitting look at globalization. Joe takes two journeys. His own journey began in Gary, Indiana. The documentary returns to his hometown to see what shaped his thinking. It then heads across the world, taking in Botswana, Ecuador, India and China. It weaves together the social and economic effects of globalization, recommending ways to manage it for the good of all.

If you are in New York you can catch it at the Lincoln center this Wednesday (3 December).

In the meantime, check out Joe’s interview with Alex Jones on YouTube on his book The Three Trillion Dollar War: the True Cost of the Iraq War, with Linda Bilmes. And Joe on the sub prime crisis on CNBC.

Nigel Lawson: No Fiscal Stimulus, Darling

24 November, 2008

You can rely on Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1983-89, to go against the conventional wisdom (see his views on climate change here and here, for example). He’s certainly not a member of the “we’re all Keynesians now” group. In today’s FT he argues that monetary policy is the key tool, not fiscal stimulus. Keynes was wrong:

“Britain … recovered faster than any other major nation from the 1930s slump. It did so largely on the basis of cheap money and a balanced budget. Between the slump’s deepest point, in 1932, and 1937 the UK economy grew at an unprecedented 4½ per cent a year. Nor was this due to rearmament spending, which did not start until 1936”.

I await the comments of economic historians on his reading of the 1930s. For the moment let me focus on his central message.

Lawson argues that recapitalizing the banks is the priority. Certainly, deleveraging by the banks has been huge. Nobody can deny that the economy can’t move again until the banks are sorted out. They are the achilles heel of the battered Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism. Today Citgroup got a $300 bn bailout.

But is this enough? It won’t be if deflation sets in. Then the real value of debt will rise, which will punish Britain’s already highly indebted households. Once deflationary expectations take hold, they are very difficult to shift as Japan in the 1990s demonstrated. Then monetary policy becomes next to useless: interest rates cannot be cut below zero.

Not using fiscal policy to stimulate consumer spending is therefore enormously risky. For sure, consumers might save rather than spend (see my previous post). And Britain will face a big tax bill (after the next election). The gilts market might take fright, but for now they are buying (few want equities).

Back to the lessons Lawson draws from the 1930s: if Britain was to revert to a balanced budget then it would have to cut public spending in a recession rather than raise it. This would have its own deflationary effect which, as economic activity fell, would reduce the tax base – thereby requiring a further expenditure cut to maintain a balanced budget. This is not a recipe for achieving economic recovery.

So, Nigel Lawson’s defiance of the Keynesian consensus is brave, but wrong. His recommendation is too risky. The same goes for doing nothing about climate change (on the latter: go here for a debate between Lawson and Oliver Letwin).

Tony Addison is Executive Director of the Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester.

Keynes is Back. But What to Do, Darling?

24 November, 2008

Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling is praising Keynes – along with just about everyone else. He’s boosted public spending (go here). The present focus on fiscal policy reflects the fear of a ‘liquidity trap’ – which Keynes first identified in the 1930s. The Bank of England is set to cut interest rates further, but this might not encourage banks to lend. So monetary policy alone can’t do the trick (it is said). Hence public spending. And now tax cuts.

Today we hear the Chancellor’s plans (at 3.30 pm: go here). The government’s spin machine was busy over the weekend so a VAT reduction will hardly come as a surprise. The FT reckons it will be a £12.5 bn package:

“At the heart of the stimulus package is an expected “temporary” cut in the VAT rate from 17.5 to 15 per cent, the lowest standard rate allowed in the EU. Food, children’s clothing and some other items have always been zero-rated in Britain”.

Will a VAT cut work? Canada cut its sales tax at the beginning of 2008, but this had modest effects on total spending, according to the ‘Undercover Economist’, Tim Harford interviewed on the BBC Today programme this morning. For a critique of the Canadian tax cuts from a poverty perspective see GrowingGap. Canadian readers: send us your views.

To cut taxes now, taxes have to rise later. Economists describe this as borrowing from ourselves. Spending won’t rise if we fully anticipate the future tax increase. Or at least that’s what some macro-economists say (see Robert Barro). It’s called Ricardian Equivalence (drop that into your next pub conversation on the economic crisis: sure to impress). Economist readers: please up-date us on whether Barro is right.

Will businesses cut prices following a VAT reduction? They are slashing prices in any case, in advance of Xmas – a last ditch hope that the sales can carry them through the new year. Buyers stormed Marks & Spencers last week, following a 20% price cut. So we might all now afford fresh underwear. But will stores cut prices further, or take some of the VAT cut to rebuild their margins?

Ann Pettifor of the New Economics Foundation interviewed on the BBC yesterday was skeptical about tax cuts (Ann was one of the first people to predict this crisis). She believes that people will instead save the VAT cut (i.e. you will still buy the same basket of goods, but now the basket will be cheaper and you won’t add any more items. Your money is then deposited in one of Britain’s hopeless banks or under your mattress). Ann points out that if the money is spent then a lot will go on foreign imports (true, but I don’t think this is necessarily as bad as is often believed. The Americans need help too. I’ll do my bit by buying a new Apple Mac).

Other ideas I have come across: delay VAT payments by small businesses for six months. Many small businesses are penalized by the larger firms not paying their suppliers on time (a zero-cost way for the latter to fund themselves). Peter Mandelson promised a crack down, but doesn’t seem to have achieved much yet. In the recession of the early 1990s, small business failures were running at a 1,000 a week. So maybe government could help with a delay in VAT payments. Housebuilders want a continuation of the present holiday on stamp duty to get the housing market re-started. Readers might like to comment on the merits of each.

But there are two ideas from the Get Fair campaign that I really like.

First, immediately invest £4bn in measures to halve child poverty by 2010. Child poverty costs at least £25 billion each year in losses to the Exchequer and in reduced GDP, according to research from the Joseph Rowntree foundation. So spending tax revenue on eliminating child poverty now would actually save public money in the future. Surely a good idea.

Second, Get Fair says improve the take-up of existing benefits: they estimate that this would help 500,000 pensioners out of poverty. Here in the UK we have just had Remembrance Sunday, a day on which we remember those who gave their lives to defend Britain – especially in the Two World Wars. A 20-year old in 1940, is now 88. Helping our pensioners now, especially those in poverty (2.5 million of them) will be one of our last chances to thank their generation.

So, over to you Darling.

The New Realities of Philanthrocapitalism

18 November, 2008

BWPI’s Mike Edwards’ book on business-led philanthropy, “Just Another Emperor?” is attracting a lot of attention – especially in the current financial climate. You can follow the debate on OpenDemocracy. More later.

Like to Know How to Live on a Dollar a Day?

9 November, 2008

Then go to the One Dollar Diet Project – you will be shocked at how difficult it is. Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard tried it for a month. To survive the two Californians had to give up most purchased food and make their own from the raw ingredients. Many vegetables were too expensive, and they had to forage. Vitamin intake became a serious problem. The two school teachers found that they could not sustain their previous energy levels. The average American eats $7 worth of food per day, but it can go below a dollar late in the month before pay day or when food stamps run out. In a New York Times article on the project, Christopher says: “I challenge anyone to live on a dollar a day and eat fresh food in this country”.

This resonates with the British debate around food and poverty, which has been given another boost by Jamie Oliver (see our earlier posts). Obesity is generally above average among low-income groups in rich socities. Why? One reason is that junk foods (energy dense: with the most calories and fewest nutrients per ounce) are cheaper than nutrient rich, lower-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables.

Pablo Monsivais and Adam Drewnowski found that junk food is not only less expensive, but that it has gone up less in price than nutrient rich, lower-calorie foods. In their Seattle study, the cost of the latter is $18.16/1,000 kcal, compared with $1.76/1,000 kcal for the most energy-dense (junk) food. Over a 2-year period, junk food actually fell by – 1.8% in price while the least energy-dense foods saw a price rise of 19.5 per cent.

Get Fair on UK Poverty

19 October, 2008

The UK has got a lot richer over the last twenty years – we are the world’s fifth richest country – but not fairer. Inequality has risen, and 12.8 million Brits live in poverty (30% of children, and 17% of older folk). That’s the message of Get Fair – a national campaign calling for an end to poverty in the UK by 2020.

The coalition now consists of more than 50 organizations. They work on poverty right across society, including among children, older people, refugees, and the disabled. Get Fair includes housing groups, as well as faith and community groups.

Two at least of their recommendations could help Britain dig itself out the recession, namely invest £4bn measures to halve child poverty by 2010 and improve the take-up of existing benefits (they estimate that this would help 500,000 pensioners out of poverty).

On 4 October, Britain’s biggest ever event to end child poverty was held in Trafalgar Square, London, organized by End Child Poverty. And Poverty Action Week takes place 31 January to 8 February 2009, organized by Church Action on Poverty.

The Habitual Food of the Working Man Varies According to his Wages

1 October, 2008

So wrote Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England based on his investigations into poverty in Manchester. The link between poverty and bad nutrition still resonates in Britain as Jamie Oliver’s new TV series Jamie’s Ministry of Food shows. Writing in today’s Guardian, Felicity Lawrence cites work by Tim Lobstein of the International Association for the Study of Obesity who has calculated the cost of 100 calories of food energy from different types of food.

“The cheapest way to get your 100 calories is to buy fats, processed starches and sugars. A hundred calories of broccoli costs 51p, but 100 calories of frozen chips only cost 2p. Good-quality sausages that are high in meat but low in fat cost 22p per 100 calories, but “value” fatty ones are only 4p per 100 calories. Poor quality-fish fingers are 12p per 100 calories compared with 29p for ones made with fish fillet that are higher in nutrients. Fresh orange juice costs 38p per 100 calories, while the same dose of energy from sugary orange squash costs 5p”.

The result? Rising obesity, and the associated diseases, among Britain’s poor. This is one reason why life expectancy can differ so radically within just a short distance in Britain, as you go between low-income and higher income areas: by as much as 28 years – yes 28 years – according to WHO.

One of the areas investigated by Engels was ‘Little Ireland‘, populated by those who escaped the Irish famine of the 1840s. The area that was Little Ireland is close to the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University.

3.9 million British Children in Poverty

30 September, 2008

That’s one in three children, according to the Campaign to End Child Poverty, a coalition of more than 130 organisations including Barnardo’s, Unicef and the NSPCC. The BBC has reproduced their map of child poverty hot spots here.

They have data on every parliamentary constituency in the UK. Their new figures show that 174 constituencies have 50 per cent or more children living in (or on the brink) of poverty. Their report says:

“Birmingham Ladywood tops the list of the grim league table with 81 per cent – or 28,420 – of its children in struggling families. And within Ladywood one ward, Aston, has 87 per cent of its youngsters struggling to get by. But this is still not the most concentrated area of child poverty. An estimated 98 per cent of children living in two zones in Glasgow Baillieston – Central Easterhouse and North Barlarnark and Easterhouse South – are either in poverty or in working families that are struggling to get by”.

This might focus politicians minds, as we move towards a general election by, at the latest, mid 2010. But will there be any cash left in the treasury after bailing out Britain’s feckless banks, we wonder?

Who to help in the current financial crisis?

29 September, 2008

Who to help in this financial crisis? On the FT web site I argue that the 37 million Americans in poverty (about 12% of the population) should be first in line for help (for US poverty statistics go here).

Many Americans on low-incomes have been sucked into loans that they cannot now service as house prices collape. African Americans will be hit hard (their poverty rate, 24.5%, is twice the average). And the relentless rise in US inequality will continue (see the graph here). The financial services industry feasted for years on selling mortgages to people who wanted to own the roof above their heads. The scandal of teaser-rate mortgages will run and run.

And the financial crisis is causing unemployment to jump. As Ken Rogoff in the FT says:

“A large expansion in debt will impose enormous fiscal costs on the US, ultimately hitting growth through a combination of higher taxes and lower spending”.

The history of financial crises demonstrates two common outcomes. First, bank crises almost always become fiscal crises – as public money has to be used to keep the credit wheels turning. Second, capital gets help first, and labour last (see for instance Mexico’s ‘peso’ crisis of the mid-90s). Will history repeat itself?