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Philosophy & Public Affairs 31.3 (2003) 280-316

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Poverty, Well-Being, and Gender:
What Counts, Who's Heard?

Susan Moller Okin

I focus here on three recent books that address the situation of the economically poorest quarter of the world's population, especially the women who are disproportionately represented among them. Each of the three in its own way examines and analyzes aspects of human agency and well-being, in particular women's agency and well-being, that have for far too long been ignored and neglected by virtually all economists, even those who specialize in development. And each—though Amartya Sen's far more explicitly than the other two—constitutes a critique of prevailing measures and standards of development economics. After I discuss the theories of development as human development, with their alternative measures and standards, that are presented in the three focal books, I turn to some recent sources of evidence about what the people who comprise the least well-off quartile think about their own most pressing needs. This evidence helps us to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the three theories of human development. It also demonstrates that "listening to the silent voices," as Brooke Ackerly's theory urges, provides an invaluable point of reference for scholars contributing to a more expansive, human concept of development. [End Page 280]

I. Poverty and Gender: Basic Facts

To appreciate the significance of the works I shall discuss, one must grasp some elementary but enormously important facts about global poverty and the history of international efforts to promote economic development in poor countries.

The first fact concerns the dimensions of poverty. If, by a "conservative estimate," the poverty line is set at $1 per person per day, then 1.3 billion people lived in poverty at the end of the twentieth century. This means that about one-quarter of all living human beings are desperately poor. The total percentage of those living in poverty has declined by a few points, mostly owing to significant economic progress in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Elsewhere, however, things have mostly gotten worse. During the period from 1985 to 1998, poverty rates rose in Africa, rose sharply in the so-called transition economies of Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union, first doubled and then declined in Latin America, and declined slightly (though the absolute numbers of those in poverty increased) in South Asia. 1

If we consider, not poverty rates, but absolute numbers of people living in severe poverty, we find that, outside of the PRC, the number of poor persons in the world rose steadily during the last two decades of the twentieth century. This increase in numbers of the poor is part of the phenomenon of growing global economic inequality, both among countries and within countries. The less-developed countries' (LDCs') and transition economy countries' incomes have stagnated while the rich industrialized countries' have risen. Those 16 percent of the global population living in the most affluent countries have 81 percent of total global income, leaving the other 84 percent to share the remaining 19 percent. 2 [End Page 281] Within most countries, too, the less well off became poorer even by the conventional measures of household income or consumption (which, as we will see, miss some crucial aspects of their impoverishment), while the rich got richer. As Ravi Kanbur and Lyn Squire wrote in 2000, "[f]or many countries over long periods of time, inequality has been surprisingly persistent, and where inequality has changed rapidly, it has increased." 3

The second fact involves the extent to which the policies of the world's most powerful international financial institutions—the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—failed disastrously during the last two decades, even when held to their own macroeconomic standards. The policies of structural adjustment, also known as the Washington Consensus, that were expected to lead to steady economic growth in the LDCs and transition economies have not done so. In some respects they have made the poverty problem worse. 4



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pp. 280-316
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Archived 2003
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