To begin with, we have to define the poorest. Who are they? People with very low income (below $1 per day), with no income generating assets (for example livestock, land), seasonal income, earning mostly from labor, depending highly on the government’s social safety net programs. These are the people who are highly vulnerable to social shocks (for example dowry), economic shocks (for example price hike of essentials), natural shocks (disasters, climate change), health shocks (for example death of the household head). These are systemic constraints restricting participation of the poorest in the market (if you are aware of the famous doughnut then you can find this on the rules and regulations part which also asks to discuss about social norms and conditions). But I hardly have found M4P projects that target the poorest of the poor but aim to solve these constraints on the surface or least discuss these constraints. Rather, our log frames are clogged with targets like ‘increasing knowledge,’ ‘creating awareness,’ ‘strengthening linkages’ with the expectation that these will eventually address the systemic constraints and lead the poorest out of poverty. Eventually, when it comes to monitoring, we spend sleepless nights to find what happened to the poorest. So what’s going wrong?
Nothing is going wrong. In the short run, the typical interventions that we do, open up the market for those who are most ready to participate. These are not the poorest rather the poor who are still highly vulnerable but have the assets and have been participating in the market albeit with low benefit. As the market opens up further for them, they create more opportunities for the poorest in their neighborhood. As a result we see increasing participation of the poorest as labors, traders, service providers and even as enterprises. For example, increase in yield and sales of tomato resulted increase in demand for baskets which in turn attracted the poorest in the community to produce baskets from bamboo supplied by some other of the poorest in the community. Such examples are in plenty. But probably we are not doing a good job in telling the story right.
Now going back to those systemic constraints…much of these problems cannot be addressed without participation of the government, the civil society, NGOs, farmer groups, cooperatives etc. Besides, it is often out of the scope of an M4P project to tackle much of the social, natural and economic shocks that restrict participation of the poorest in the market (how much can you do when you are given 5 years, of which you will have effectively 3.5 years to make some real impacts). This is where I say, do not push M4P so hard. ‘The egg laying wool milk pig’ never exists.
But I don’t mean to say we should give it up. We can still make some major shifts given the limited scope that we have. But that call for larger actions in the national forum rather than working together with 3-4 private sector lead firms and one or two associations in the market system of say for instance maize. The larger action means we need to work together with the government, the civil society, the NGOs and such other organizations (again, they belong to both support functions and the rules and regulations part of our famous doughnut). The government can come up with policies that help the poorest to accumulate the necessary resources with less risks and provide incentives to the private sector to work more with the bottom of the pyramid (not the bottom of the consumers but bottom of the producers). The result is a much larger action and intervention (and hence scale and sustainability) reaching out to the poorest.