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Social Movements and the Politicization of Chronic Poverty Policy

Anthony Bebbington


Discussions of chronic poverty have emphasised the extent to which poverty is chronic because of the social relationships and structures within which particular groups of the poor are embedded. In this sense chronic poverty should be understood as a socio-political relationship rather than a lack of assets. In such an understanding, processes of social mobilisation become central to any discussion of chronic poverty because they are vehicles through which such relationships are argued over in society and potentially changed. Parting from this observation, the paper reviews the roles of social movements in addressing chronic poverty. It focuses on three domains in which such movements might influence chronic poverty. First, it discusses their roles in challenging the institutions, social structures and political economy dynamics that underlie chronic poverty. In this domain, movements can play potential roles in changing the conditions under which accumulation occurs and attacking relationships of adverse incorporation. They can also change the relationships that underlie processes of social exclusion. Second, movements have played important roles in the cultural politics surrounding chronic poverty. They have helped change dominant meanings associated with poverty, and influenced the ways in which the poor are thought of in society. Third, in some instances movements - and in particular social movement organisations - have direct impacts on the assets that poor people own and control. All this said, movements themselves suffer many internal weaknesses that can limit their contributions to changing conditions of chronic poverty in a society. Furthermore, at times elite groups and others aim to aggravate these weaknesses in efforts to dissipate the effects that these movements might have on existing relationships of power and patterns of accumulation. Social movements' main contribution is, perhaps, that they politicize debates on chronic poverty. Any changes that they elicit owe much to this politicization and to the contentious, at times threatening, relationships between these movements and other social actors, government organisations and businesses. This contentious nature of movements complicates the extent to which policy might work directly with them. However, policy can do much to support environments that enable the work of, and protect the rights of, social movement activists and members. It can also provide more direct forms of support if and when movement organisations and activists shift strategies and ultimately take up positions in government - as has occurred in a number of regime transitions in the recent past.

Publication Type(s)

CPRC Working Paper


assets politics adverse incorporation social relations social movements

ISBN: 1-904049-62-1


Social Movements and the Politicization of Chronic Poverty PDF 304.4 KB

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