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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Assessing Poverty Alleviation Strategies for their Impact on Poor Women: A Study with Special Reference to India

This paper is concerned with the way macro-economic strategies can affect the incidence of poverty, especially among women, and also with the effectiveness of various forms of government intervention in this regard. The focus is on India, but the analysis may have more general implications for other developing countries.

The various concepts and definitions of poverty are discussed, and the continued relevance of the income criterion in assessing time-trends is mentioned. The trends in the incidence and pattern of poverty in India since the 1970s are also discussed, with some attempt at disaggregation by region, type of household and gender. It emerges that the period between 1973-74 and 1989-90 was characterized by a sustained decline in poverty ratios in both rural and urban India, and that this process is no longer clearly evident for the subsequent period of the 1990s. While traditional explanations of poverty incidence rely on agricultural growth and inflation rate, the observed trends suggest that other factors — such as the effects of public expenditure and the relative price of foodgrain — should be incorporated. Thus it is argued that the single most important reason for the decline in poverty ratios over the 1980s was the increase in real wages of unskilled labour in both urban and rural areas, which in turn was associated with the direct employment generation, as well as the multiplier, effects of substantially increased government expenditure evident throughout the 1980s. Similarly, the deceleration in such expenditure as well as the sharp increase in food prices related to the structural adjustment programmes of the 1990s have been associated with a reversal in the earlier downward trend in poverty for all India as well as most states.

All this leads to the conclusion that generalized policies of macro-economic contraction, associated with stabilization measures which operate through demand deflation and reduced government expenditure, are likely to have a negative effect on the conditions of poorer groups. Also, any policies (including trade liberalization, the encouragement of agricultural exports, and so on) which increase the relative price of food are likely to lead to increases in poverty. So any macro-economic strategy which seeks to reduce the incidence of poverty must consciously abjure, or mitigate, these effects.

The link between employment patterns and poverty is particularly evident for women, as the available evidence on the growing feminization of poverty suggests. The link between poverty and asset ownership is also very important, since women in South Asia are typically denied access to the ownership of land and other important assets. This means that poverty alleviation strategies have to be based on asset redistribution, which has a definite gender link, as well as other macro-economic strategies which allow for the expansion and diversification of employment opportunities.

Specific poverty alleviation strategies of the Indian government are also assessed in terms of their impact on poor women in particular. These include the public distribution system for foodgrain, which is shown to have a clear gender dimension given socio-cultural patterns of intra-household food allocation. Similarly, self-employment schemes such as credit provision for asset building, have tended to be less successful precisely because they have ignored the gender aspect by not making the schemes sufficiently flexible to incorporate women's specific needs. Wage employment schemes emerge as having very definite positive effects on poor women, although both their design and implementation need substantial reform.

Micro-interventions, especially in forms such as co-operative credit schemes, have proved to be highly successful in specific cases. However, the point is made in the paper that such interventions, by NGOs and social movements, should not simply bypass official intervention, but should also be devoted to making government agencies more directly accountable to citizens, and to ensuring that official money is used in ways that benefit the citizenry at large and particularly those in most need of assistance — that is, the poor and especially disadvantaged groups among the poor. This in turn means that poor women should be granted a greater degree of control over the official resources spent in their name.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 1998
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD/UN Publications