Q&A with Victoria Lawson

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Victoria Lawson is the co-founder and co-director of the Relational Poverty Network. She is a professor, Director of the Honors Program at the University of Washington, former Chair of the Department of Geography and has won various awards.
Sources: Professor of Geography

How did you become interested in the issue of global poverty? I began working in Ecuador in the mid 1980s for my dissertation research. Since then I have also worked on deep poverty in Ghana, Argentina, Norway and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. Ecuador was an impoverished country in the 80’s within the Latin American context. The country continues to have a small economy and a majority of people in small-scale agriculture. I worked in small rural communities in the high Andes that had been essentially bypassed by the promises of modern development; lacking adequate roads, services and viable, dignified livelihoods. I met many people who were struggling to make ends meet, to feed their families and send their children to school. I returned to Ecuador in the 1990s to study rural to urban migration and I spent a lot of time in squatter settlements on the fringes of the capital city of Quito. Here again, I researched how people remained marginalized from economic and social opportunities. I also began to explore how those with relatively more privilege in the society often understood themselves as very different and separate from those who are poor. This understanding was reflected in a ‘self-help’ approach on the part of governments and society, rather than thinking about the solution to poverty as a collective social responsibility.

You have traveled to some rough places, which one stands out? I have traveled to some amazing and startling places in my career that remain with me. I would not characterize any of them as ‘rough’ but I would say that there are many places around the globe that have been systematically impoverished by global interventions of one kind or another. Take for example the country of Ghana which I visited in 2009 and 2011. This country has been independent since the 1950s and has abundant mineral and agricultural resources. The country is populated by a vibrant, hard-working and creative people and yet the economy does not provide a decent livelihood for the majority. The reasons for impoverishment are complex and have their roots in historical ties of colonialism, the slave trade and colonial extractive economies. This history shapes contemporary global relationships of debt, of unequal exchanges of trade and corporate investments and forms of international development that do not prioritize the public sphere. This is coupled with the relatively weak position of Ghana as a political power in Africa and on a global stage. This combination (which I am not doing justice in this brief response), creates a situation in which the poor majority of the population of the country are not able to access material resources or exercise political voice for inclusive change.

What strategies are working on the ground? One crucial strategy for combating global poverty is to invest in social scientific research done by local scholars in specific countries. In both Ecuador and Ghana, the social sciences are woefully underdeveloped and this means that there is insufficient creative, locally-based research on the complexities of the social, economic and political processes producing impoverishment. Without deeply understanding the root causes of poverty, we are unable to effectively change it. Then once local researchers conduct research, their findings should be listened to both by government actors and also the international development community. All too often, outside ‘experts’ identify problems and solutions that are not fully attuned to local realities and histories. Another strategy that has real chances of success is to invest in the public sphere and in projects that provide for the needs of the entire population. For example, investments in a public health system are vital, as are investments in high quality public schooling for all. The UK has an innovative policy in Ghana, where they pay back the Ghanaian educational system for nurses and doctors who migrate to work in the UK. This policy has two aspects: first it tops up doctor and nurse salaries in Ghana to reflect the benefits that the UK receives from those migrant professionals. Second, the policy requires UK investments in the Ghanaian professional education system to compensate for the brain drain that results from out migration. This example focuses on building a more robust Ghanaian public health sector and even more importantly, it is a rare example of a rich country taking responsibility for impacts of out migration from Ghana that are of direct benefit to the UK.

What are your views on foreign investment in policy development? I am not sure what you are asking here. If resources are provided in close consultation with national and local communities through a transparent and consultative process then I would support such efforts. The process is as important as the money itself. If there is co-learning and collaboration that leads to new ideas, a serious engagement with Global South views and experiences, then this could be valuable. Policies should not be imported wholesale from the West and rather than U.S. investments paying for U.S. ‘experts’ to design policy for Ghana (or elsewhere,) then investments in policy development that allow for close engagements with local knowledge could be valuable.

If you could invest a billion dollars in improving the world, how would you spend it? I would begin with the stance that poverty is a much more complex problem than simply lack of money (although it is also that in a market economy.) Poverty is also about lack of political voice, it is about being defined by others who frame poverty as individual flaws and faults, rather than a systematic and structural issue for the entire society (national and global.) Solving poverty requires building robust democracies, inclusive democracies that take participation of the poorest seriously. I would support a value shift in how we frame and think about development. For me, development begins from building caring infrastructures and this is where we should invest, in infrastructures that ensure health, a healthy food supply and robust livelihoods for entire populations. This caring approach would involve recognizing the contributions of all people, including those who do the invisible caring work in our societies. I would invest in values discussions that lead to new priorities, identified from the ground up and I would then invest in local priorities.

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About Author

Nicole Advani

Nicole Advani is a Seattle-based Writer for BORGEN Magazine. She attends the Honors Program at the University of Washington and is studying Medical Anthropology and Global Health.