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The Paradox of Middle Income Countries

November 26, 2012

Last week I attended a workshop entitled Poverty and Politics in Middle Income Countries in Cape Town. It was organised by the Institute of Social Development at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and CROP. Over the course of three days, researchers from across the globe and with various disciplinary backgrounds presented and discussed their work in this area.

Many different issues were discussed as part of this broad area of research. There were various sessions grouping research on poverty measurement, human rights, processes of democratisation and growth and inequality. Reflecting on the wide range of different topics discussed, and opinions voiced, the most pertinent thought on the overall theme can be most aptly described by the paradox of Middle Income Countries (MICs.)

I presented a paper on child well-being in Kazakhstan (co-authored with Franziska Gassmann from the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and following a report that is to be published by UNICEF Kazakhstan shortly) whilst other papers included case studies from Thailand, India, Brazil, Nigeria and China. A recurrent issue was the frustration that whilst these countries are, by and large, doing well in terms of economic growth, this does not seem to trickle down to the majority of the population and does little to improve the situation of the poor and vulnerable and to promote human rights.

Whilst MICs can be argued to have a resource base that is no close or equal to that of rich countries, many of those countries still face problems that are most commonly found in Low Income Countries (LICs), including substantial poverty rates, food insecurity, high unemployment, amongst others. Against the backdrop of such a resource base, the perpetuation of those problems seems to be due to choice rather than the inability to make positive changes.

In relation to human rights, following Thomas Pogge’s ideas, it was discussed that poverty should actually be seen as a violation of human rights, to the extent that governments should be held to account for persistent and deep levels of poverty. Although it was recognised that the practicalities of pursuing this idea would be complex, if not impossible, it did resonate strongly with the majority of participants.

One graph presented by one of the participants, Chifa Tekaya from Tunisia, struck a particular cord with me. It indicated the number of people having died from the consequences of poverty from 1990 to 2004 and related these to some of the worst crimes against humanity, including World War II and Stalin’s repression. Although a crude comparison by any standards, it does work in bringing the message home about the scale and consequences of global poverty. We now know that the majority of this problem is to be found in MICs. Rather than turning our backs given the level of resources and capacity in these countries, it is time to critically engage with the paradox of poverty in MICS.


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