seed varieties to raise income, mosquito nets treated with insecticide to improve health, more schools to raise the level of education. These sorts of policies, when they are actually implemented successfully, can have positive impacts (though sometimes these sorts of policies – the introduction of new seed varieties, for example – can have contradictory impacts). Yet they leave unexamined and unaddressed the social structures, the power relations, that have generated and continue to generate poverty.
To a large extent, the poor are poor because they lack power, and they lack power because they are poor. When power is brought into consideration, the focus of policy shifts towards such issues as land reform and the effective control of state actions – i.e., of the underlying factors that determine spending on health care, education and other social services. The problem of poverty, then, would be approached as a socio-political problem, not simply as a technical problem. (Technical changes can bring about changes in socio-political relations, and that is one of the reasons, in addition to their direct impacts, that they are often good. But technical solutions are less likely to be effective when they are implemented without consideration of power relations – about which, more in Section IV).
The discussion of the meaning of poverty is not new. The problem of figuring out what makes people “well off” or “poorly off” has long been examined by economists and philosophers, from Adam Smith through Karl Marx and up through John Rawls, Amartya Sen, and many others. Much of this discussion is very useful, and I will have occasion to draw upon some of it here. My principal purpose is to connect these issues to the current phase of the campaigns to eliminate, or at least reduce, poverty, and to the particular policies that arise in these efforts. Much of what I will say is a critique of the UN’s MDGs program. At the same time, however, I would hope to make some contribution to this long-continuing discussion.
II. Poverty as a Multidimensional Concept
Most commonly, we measure people’s economic well-being by their income or material wealth. A person is rich or poor in common parlance because she/he has a high or low income or a large or small amount of material wealth. It all boils down to an amount of money. Nonetheless, while we sometimes become fixated on money, we usually recognize that it is not money per se that determines one’s well-being. Money is the measure of the things we can buy, the commodities that we see as determining our well-being. Insofar as it is true that people’s well-being is determined – or mostly determined – by commodities, goods and services available on the market, this is not unreasonable.
Actually, however, important components of what determines people’s well-being are not goods and services available on the market. Furthermore, goods and services, whether or not they are available on the market, are themselves – like money – more accurately seen as a means to something else, something else that determines people’s well-being. In a widely-quoted passage in The Wealth of Nations, for example, Adam