Since World War II, economic growth has been the leading policy goal in efforts to eradicate poverty. There is strong evidence that this strategy has gone hand in hand with increasing inequity and environmental degradation. We need concepts that will help us understand the inadequacies of the current economic system. We propose drawing from the ideas of sociologist Johan Galtung on social power structures, and those of economist Herman Daly on the physical features of the economy. A fusion of these perspectives creates a novel framework for analysis and a basis to formulate alternatives to the current growth strategy. One of the illustrations we use in the paper refers to our work in Bangladesh.
Daly’s Capital Stock model has three basic elements: the stock itself, its outflow of services and its maintenance inflow. Galtung’s Core/Periphery perspective brings up two broad categories of nations or collectivities within nations. Merging these two concepts brings to light three facets of inequity:
- The ‘ownership’ of assets in the Capital Stock: Who owns what? How is the possession of assets from the Capital Stock distributed over the Core and the Periphery?
- The ‘entitlement’ to benefits or services provided by the assets: Who is entitled to the services that the Capital Stock provides? Who uses what and for which purpose? How are these services generated for either the Core or the Periphery?
- The ‘control’ over maintenance of the Capital Stock: How is the maintenance of the Capital Stock organized and who controls this? Who decides in what to invest, and why? How do these processes take place?
‘Who’ can be an individual, a community, a region or a country, belonging either to the Core or the Periphery; ‘what’ is a combination of the assets from the Capital Stock. An overall supposition is that there is inequity in all three facets:
- The Core owns more of the Capital Stock, is entitled to more services provided by the Capital Stock, and has more control over maintenance of the Capital Stock.
- The Periphery owns, is entitled to, and controls less.
Our projects as an illustration
Over a decade ago, the discovery of arsenic poisoning from millions of domestic water supplies prompted considerable national and international concern. Since then, most government and non-government drinking water programs have failed to benefit the Periphery in rural Bangladesh. Instead, the schemes are generally biased towards Core groups within communities (we discussed this in a previous post). Moreover, many of the newly installed water supplies are not maintained and eventually abandoned. The situation prompted us to initiate a learning-by-doing program with several marginalised communities.
In terms of technological assets and the provision of arsenic-free drinking water, communities gave overwhelming preference to deep tube-wells. Materials and know-how are readily available, it takes only five days to install one, and with proper facilitation, communities can have a say in where it should be installed. A deep tube-well not only provides safe drinking water, it is also a means upon which people can establish an operation and maintenance committee, that is, an organizational asset for the poor.
The quality of this organization may be assessed from the point of view of two basic functions. The first is the management of collective tasks, to begin with, the maintenance of the deep tube-well. A committee will need procedures, such as the collection of household contributions, to ensure that service flows from the technological asset continue to benefit the entire community. The second basic function of institutional development should be to ensure, not only that activities are undertaken according to common priorities (the flow of services from the Capital Stock should be shared), but also that the entire community has a chance to actively take part in decision making (the flow of control over maintenance of the Capital Stock should also be shared). The village election of a deep tube-well maintenance committee was a first step. A second step was the involvement of village volunteers that monitor the committee and its responsibilities towards the community.
Solutions often follow rather logically from the identification of obstacles. For example, if the owner of the land monopolises the water supply, collectively owned land (ecological asset) should be registered before installing a water supply. To give another example, if a few individuals dominate elections (in other words, they exert control over investments in new organizational assets), then external facilitators must assist, as much as possible, the transfer of this control to the Periphery. To further strengthen the local institutions, the program now supports efforts to address other priorities beyond drinking water, such as sanitation, food, health and education.
This does not mean that all problems are easily identified or resolved, nor that short-term success will last. Although results in our program seem promising, the sustainability is not guaranteed. This is important in terms of setting appropriate time frames. Over the past 6 years, the ownership and entitlement aspects of our drinking water programme have been addressed. The more difficult and crucial task of ensuring that control is properly handed over locally will be our focus in the coming years. The proposed framework will provide guidance, but we are also expecting it to be further tested and refined depending on what comes up in practice. This will be reported in future publication.