Robert WalkerRobert Walker was interviewed over email by David Farrow, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina studying Public Policy and History and enrolled in a joint UNC-Duke course on the History of Poverty in the United States.

David Farrow (DF): In 1999, Amartya Sen called upon the international community to treat the impoverished as agents rather than patients. To what extent do you think academics and policy makers have undertaken this normative shift?

Robert Walker (RW): I prefer the term ‘the impoverished’ to ‘the poor’ in the sense that it hints at the predominance of structural causes for poverty rather than individualistic ones. However, use of the definite article creates a unified category submerging the individuality of people experiencing poverty. I tend to use the term ‘people experiencing poverty’. As to shifting the focus from patient to agent, a positive change in political-speak can be seen by comparing the different approaches to developing the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals. When in public and on our best behaviour, we virtually all buy into this reconceptualization. When we are talking in private, desperate to tackle a phenomenon that continues to kill, maim, pain and humiliate, we often forget such considerations. Talking within the World Bank, I empathise with the view that ‘we just have to get resources into their hands it doesn’t matter how’; but it does matter, just ask people in poverty!

DF: With academics often reducing the impoverished to statistics and commodity bundles, what can be done by researchers and scholars to respect the impoverished as humans rather than data points?

RW: The obvious, if clichéd, answer is to work with people in poverty as well as for people in poverty. Listening, prioritising the perspectives of people with direct experience of poverty, working in partnership all help. More difficult for me to live with is the fact that I have built a pretty successful career out of studying poverty.

DF: To what extent has interdisciplinary scholarship between economists and ethicists been integrated into poverty alleviation strategies?

RW: I don’t know. I may not even know what scholarship you are talking about. But then, I dislike disciplines that divide and colonise knowledge such that is has to be repaired through interdisciplinary scholarship. I merely research in my day job; and increasingly advocate whenever I can.

DF: How can the public norms of poverty shaming and victim blaming be reshaped?

RW: This is a topic I shall address in my lecture. The challenge is a major one – take a look at the videos on our research website.

Click on ‘Countries’ and look up Pakistan, United Kingdom, South Korea or Uganda.

We have to work at many levels but we need bold political leadership. It is possible to challenge prejudice and change attitudes. Although, as I found spending the first six months of this year in New York, US society is still riven by racial tensions, the civil rights movement and legislation nevertheless wrought massive change. So, too, did the gay rights movement; we have now gay marriage in many states. These movements against prejudice were very largely led by people within their respective communities who had acquired wealth and hence influence. By definition such people do not exist among people who are poor. That is the crux of the challenge.

DF: How can the international community rectify the social will for global poverty alleviation with the growing political aversion to interventionism and foreign aid?

RW: Be careful not to presume that all politics is American politics; not every country is averse to foreign aid. Indeed, for reasons that I cannot fathom, only foreign aid and the NHS have been protected by the current UK Coalition Government which has imposed swinging cuts in public expenditure as part of its austerity programme. Also, are you sure that the social will is for global poverty alleviation? Might it not be that many people pray ‘Oh God help “the poor” but not at my expense’ while others simply get on with their lives, buying all those things that capitalism requires us all to consume (if we can afford them)?

DF: Given the immense undertaking of poverty alleviation, how do you personally avoid feeling a pernicious despair over such a seemingly insurmountable challenge?

RW: I was born an optimist and an enthusiast; this makes me perhaps naïve, but certainly eternally hopeful. I see the goodness in the people that I meet and share in their humanity. I interpret the horrors that we inflict on others as aberrations. I know that change is possible. You do too. We have all seen it, positive and negative, some of which can readily be attributed to human action and even, sometimes, to human intent. My optimism leads me to think of governance as a good but to recognise that good governance is difficult. I see the 20th Century as the century of national governments and believe that only global governance can adequately address the issues that now confront us in the 21st Century. I would love one day for it to be said of me that I made a difference. I therefore have to keep on trying.


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