Rural Poverty in Asia: Analysis and Policy Alternatives, by Keith Griffin
Rural poverty cannot be studied in isolation. It has an historical origin and setting which simultaneously connect the present to the past and establish boundaries to what is possible in future. The history of rural poverty is of course part of the history of underdevelopment and the origin of the types of rural poverty observable today forms part of what Andre Gunder Frank calls “the development of underdevelopment”.1 Accordingly we begin this paper with a brief discussion of underdevelopment in an historical context.
We shall argue that underdevelopment in general, and the rural poverty that is its most obvious manifestation, arose from the way the third world was incorporated into an international economic and political system dominated initially by Europe and later by America. This Western hegemony, however, encountered continuous resistance and after decades and even centuries of struggle the old colonial and imperial regimes have virtually disappeared from the face of the globe. In their place has emerged a system of nation states. The scores of countries which comprise the new nation state system enjoy at least nominal independence and often a considerable measure of sovereignty over their internal affairs. Thus rural poverty in the contemporary world must be seen as largely a national phenomenon: it is national governments which have inherited the responsibility for reducing poverty and which design and implement policies for doing so.
The state, however, is a social institution, not a neutral piece of apparatus. Societies or polities, we argue, are composed of classes or distinct groups which frequently are in competition and conflict with one another. It is therefore appropriate to consider the class structure that has developed in the third world and to locate rural poverty within specific groups of a social hierarchy. This is done in the second section of the paper.
In a stratified society the groups that are poor are unlikely to be the groups that control the government and the state. On the contrary, economic and political power usually go together and hence in most countries it is those who are relatively well off economically who tend to determine government policy and exercise political authority. This being so, an important issue is raised, namely, whether it is realistic to expect that existing governments will adopt domestic economic policies which directly or indirectly benefit the poor, and above all the rural poor. This is the question that is examined in the third section of the paper.
In the final section we assume those in power wish to alleviate rural poverty. The measures they are willing or able to introduce, however, will be determined in part by their room for manoeuvre, i.e., by the shifting balance of political forces, national and international, at play in the society. At any given moment in time some policies may be feasible and others “politically impossible”, but no one, least of all an outsider, can say in advance which is which. General advice, therefore, is unlikely to be immediately applicable and perhaps the best that can be done is to set out the types of policies that are available to governments and their likely impact. At any rate, this is what we have attempted to do.
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