The Promise of Welfare States in Middle-Income Countries

Raj Desai has a fascinating post up for Brookings comparing the history of the development of welfare states in today’s rich countries with the status of welfare states in today’s developing countries. He writes,

“India today is already richer than Germany was when it introduced social insurance for all workers in the late 1880s. Indonesia is richer than the United States was in 1935, when the Social Security Act was passed. And China is richer than Britain was in 1948, when the National Health Service was introduced… Although the industrial revolution had dramatic effects on poverty in today’s rich countries, the end of extreme poverty only occurred in those countries after the creation of modern welfare states in the post-World War II period. These welfare programs raised the living standards of the most destitute citizens while establishing a “social floor” that protected all members of society. Today’s lower and middle-income countries, despite their significant progress, are actually lagging behind in their fight against poverty when compared to countries that industrialized before the 20th century.”

 Desai then shows this table:

Table 1. Extreme poverty rates of today’s rich countries, when they were at similar levels of development (%)

raj table 1v2 

The point is clear: welfare states were essential to ending extreme poverty in today’s rich countries, but today’s developing countries are yet to create these programs despite similar levels of development. For many countries with significant numbers of people in extreme poverty, the possibility of a welfare state remains far in the future. For example, it is hard to imagine the DR Congo implementing a functioning national social security program.

Yet for many middle-income countries, major welfare programs are entirely possible. As Desai notes, today’s rich countries were able to do so at similar levels of development. Amartya Sen has written about how developing countries have been able to implement universal health care, and Bolsa Familia’s success also demonstrates the ability of middle-income countries to implement massive poverty-reducing programs.

Furthermore, the majority of the world’s extreme poor live in middle-income countries. The four countries Desai included in the table- China, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria- have 675 million of the world’s one billion people living in extreme poverty. While Nigeria has a relatively weak state and suffers from conflict, the other three do have quite well-developed states. All four countries have higher GDPs per capita than Rwanda and Bangladesh, countries that Sen points to as having extensive health coverage. If welfare states are the key to ending extreme poverty, and the majority of the world’s extreme poor live in middle-income countries that seem capable of implementing significant welfare programs, shouldn’t developing welfare states in middle-income countries be a major focus of efforts to reduce extreme poverty?

For NGOs to push this process forward, it will require a “beyond aid” focus and a willingness to act politically. While NGOs can try to frame welfare programs as technical advice, they will usually be too political and too expensive for that approach to work. As major welfare programs are internal solutions to poverty and represent significant changes in the role of the state, NGOs would be better off working through internal agents of change. One option is for NGOs to expand use of a confederation approach, allowing national branches of the organization to act as domestic advocates rather than foreign actors. Yet NGOs can also expand connections with and funding for local civil society organizations, giving them greater ability to push their own governments towards welfare programs.

One potential problem for domestic efforts to push for a welfare state to reduce extreme poverty is the role of the middle class. Desai found that the key to today’s rich countries developing welfare states was an alliance between the lower and middle classes. That coalition generated power but also affected what types of programs were implemented, leading to programs such as social security and universal health care that benefited all citizens, not just the poor, since the middle class wanted to receive benefits as well. Desai notes that the focus on reducing poverty in today’s developing countries, rather than providing universal benefits, has tended to cause the middle class to distance themselves from the poor. This would suggest that instead of working with civil society groups that just focus on the poor, to effectively push for welfare state policies, NGOs would also have to work with groups promoting the interests of the middle class. This policy would require NGOs to take a much more circuitous route to ending poverty than their usual policy of targeting the poor. It also presents a risk that middle class groups would co-opt the agenda to focus exclusively on policies that benefit themselves, instead of universal policies that help both the poor and the middle class. These challenges demonstrate that it will by no means be easy to get middle-income countries to move towards welfare states, but given this approach’s massive promise in reducing extreme poverty, it is a topic warranting significant exploration.

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Black Lives Matter is Taking a Page Out of Amnesty International’s Book

Since its founding in 1961, and particularly during the 1970s, Amnesty International has played a central role in bringing human rights from an often ignored abstraction to a key factor in international politics.  Crucial to Amnesty’s success has been its prisoner of conscience strategy.  Amnesty highlights the case of a political prisoner- or as they call them, a prisoner of conscience-, publicizes the human rights abuse, and pressures the government responsible to release the prisoner.  This strategy has led to the international shaming of abusive governments, the release of prisoners, and the creation of iconic symbols of human rights abuses.  Amnesty has expanded to focus on a wider range of human rights issues, but its approach to these issues builds on the prisoner of conscience strategy rather than replacing it.

Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement’s uses of symbolic, information, and accountability politics have been remarkably similar to Amnesty’s.  Especially given Black Lives Matter’s decentralized structure, it is unlikely that the movement intentionally adapted Amnesty’s strategy.  Nevertheless, there are many close parallels between its tactics and Amnesty’s.  Perhaps the most significant is their shared focus on individuals.  Where Amnesty uses prisoners of conscience, Black Lives Matter uses African-Americans killed by police.  The prisoner of conscience strategy exists on two levels.  The first level is to improve the condition of the prisoner and ultimately secure their release.  The second, however, is to use the prisoner as a symbol of broader human rights abuses, typically focusing on pushing the country’s government to stop abuse of others in similar positions.  This two-level approach to individuals is also used by Black Lives Matter, and Dara Lind writes that in Black Lives Matter’s development since Ferguson, “the focus on individual cases has remained- both as a way to remind American of the actual victims of the status quo and to demand justice for individuals at the local level.”  The symbolic level is particularly important to Black Lives Matter, as individuals killed by police become tangible representations of the multitude of abuses of African-Americans that go ignored.  Michael Brown is not just an 18-year-old killed by Darren Wilson; he gives a name and a face to a system of oppression.  Indeed, individuals are so central to the strategy of Black Lives Matter that key organizer of the movement Deray McKesson regularly writes tweets such as this one: “We remember you Mike. We remember you Pearlie. We remember you Mya.  We remember you Aura. We remember you Renisha. We remember you Tamir.”  Lind notes the utility of an individual-centered strategy.  She writes that “tactically, this makes sense.  It’s easier to mobilize people in response a particular injustice than to get them to prevent injustices across the board.”

Yet in addition to their focus on individuals, Amnesty and Black Lives Matter share an emphasis on documenting and publicizing abuses.  Repression of political dissidents and police violence against African-Americans are not rare occurrences, but they are typically invisible.  Amnesty and Black Lives Matter have gained prominence because they make the prevalence of these problems difficult to deny.  Research and documentation are core parts of Amnesty’s activities, and Jan Eckel writes that Amnesty attempts “to produce facts by building up channels of information, carrying out investigations, and verifying allegations.”  Black Lives Matter, too, has focused on producing information.  It has led to projects such as the Guardian’s “The Counted,” which documents all people killed by U.S. police.  Significantly, a major effect of Black Lives Matter has been increased filming and attention to videos of police officers, and a number of killings have been caught on tape.  In a recent article on why Michael Brown’s death led to such a sustained focus on police violence against African-Americans, Jamelle Bouie writes that “in the months after Ferguson, Americans viewed a steady stream of images from police stops gone wrong. The victims were almost always black, the offenses were almost always minor, the outcomes were often death, and—most importantly—police accounts never quite matched the footage.”  This type of documentation is particularly important as the public has strong bias towards the police officers that kill African-Americans, and while even videos have not always caused convictions of police officers, visible proof makes it much more likely that victims of police violence will be seen as victims.  For Amnesty, especially since states make extensive efforts to deny the existence or innocence of political prisoners, “high-quality research was an essential part of Amnesty’s political capital, providing credibility as well as informational advantage.”

Another important parallel between Amnesty and Black Lives Matter is the demands they place on states, which are conceptually noncontroversial but radical in their application.  Both groups are eminently focused on abuses perpetrated by states, and almost all states have established obligations to their citizens.  The state’s responsibility to protect human rights was already fairly well-established in intellectual thought, and after World War II human rights began to become legally enshrined, most notably with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  Despite this recognition of human rights, few states seriously considered them as something that should constrain their behavior prior to Amnesty’s rise to prominence.  The novelty of this assertion made Amnesty’s demands quite radical, yet their strategy often consisted of holding government accountable to treaties they had already signed.  Similarly, no one would deny that black lives matter; even the use of “all lives matter” as an attempt to subdue Black Lives Matter accepts the view that black lives matter.  Also, rights to equality and justice are unequivocally granted in the Constitution.  Yet this has never been the reality in the U.S., and meaningful steps towards justice and equality often find themselves outside the bounds of mainstream American politics.

Given the chasm between existing reality at the time of Amnesty and Black Lives Matter’s founding and their goals of human rights and African-American equality, both focus on creating normative shifts rather than implementing linear theories of change.  Amnesty tends to focus much more on the fact that states should respect human rights than how they should implement them.  For Black Lives Matter, Jay King writes that “the movement does tend to shy away from specific policy prescriptions.  Instead, the work seems to be aimed at an abrupt, wide-scale change in consciousness.”  Crucial to these groups’ attempts to create a normative shift is their promotion of a language with which to express their aims.  Activists have often struggled to find a way to link seemingly different events rooted in the same cause.  By popularizing terms such as ‘white supremacy,’ ‘violence against black bodies,’ ‘unlawful imprisonment,’ and ‘prisoners of conscience,’ both groups have made it possible to articulate the norms they seek to implement.

Yet while Amnesty and Black Lives Matter have pursued very similar strategies, the organizations themselves have a number of differences.  In addition to its large grassroots membership, Amnesty has a strong central organization that Black Lives Matter does not.  Also, Amnesty’s tendency to take an apolitical stance in response to human rights abuses is not matched by Black Lives Matter’s leftist orientation.  While Amnesty is a global organization and works closely with local civil society groups, its members tend to be concentrated in the West while the human rights abuses they address are often in developing countries.  Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, draws a large majority of its members from the oppressed population it focuses on.  This makeup means that Black Lives Matter will find it easier to empower and accurately reflect the desires of the people they advocate for, yet Amnesty’s closer proximity to power means it has a greater ability to leverage it.

Nevertheless, both groups have managed to implement similar tactics despite their organizational differences.  Both have caused individuals to become well-known representations of systemic problems, documented the extent of the abuses, and put the abuses in the context of the norms they seek to promote.  Yet, ultimately, the goal of their promotion of symbols, information, and norms is for the power they gain from these factors to cause tangible improvements in the lives of oppressed populations, and this effect is exceptionally difficult to measure.  This challenge means that the exact extent of Amnesty’s success remains up for debate, but I think few would deny that its fifty years of action have caused a greater application of human rights.  Black Lives Matter has undoubtedly generated massive attention, and hopefully this attention will quickly translate into greater racial equality.