Against the Odds

Poverty reduction has never been more salient in discussions of development than in recent times. The global commitment to the Millennium Development Goals and the strong preoccupation with poverty in certain key donor agencies have raised its profile. But under the surface runs a strong current of scepticism, even pessimism, about the feasibility of achieving much in the struggle against poverty – and many of these doubts are linked to perceived inadequacies of governments in less developed countries.

Political processes in many less developed countries have become more open in recent years, but this has often given elites and other non-poor groups fresh opportunities to make gains at the expense of poor people. This is said to have compelled most politicians atop these systems to pay little heed to poverty reduction.

It is further argued that during the 1990s, governments in less developed countries have found it difficult to pursue poverty reduction as a result of constraints imposed by international forces and by domestic difficulties — inherited legacies, weak administration and powerful opponents.

Aims and Objectives

This study challenges that depressing view. It assesses leading politicians in three quite different less developed countries – all of whom faced many of the difficulties noted above and still made significant headway against poverty. These are Yoweri Museveni, leader of Uganda since 1986 (President since 1996), Digvijay Singh, Chief Minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh in India’s federal system 1993-2003; and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, President of Brazil 1995–2003.


The research draws on one of the few earlier analyses of politicians, institutions and efforts to address poverty in less developed countries: William Ascher’s Scheming for the Poor (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1983). It should be noted, however, that he focuses entirely on Latin America during the 1970s and early 1980s and therefore there are marked differences between his research and ours.

The differences in the political realities of each case study necessitated different modes of analysis in each case. However in all cases this study concentrated upon ‘politics’ – the interplay of contending interests in the pursuit of power – upon the political entrepreneurship of leaders atop these systems, and upon the role of these things in shaping the political and policy processes and outcomes, especially but not only where poverty initiatives are concerned.


All three leaders sought to avoid both wildly overblown expectations and popular alienation and pessimism – not just because these things would make them unpopular, but also because they make political accommodations very difficult.

Museveni in Uganda and Singh in Madhya Pradesh set out systematically to stimulate demands from poor, previously excluded groups, despite the usual demand overload and budgetary restrictions which are present in most less developed countries. Both took risks because they genuinely wanted to tackle poverty and because not doing so would pose greater threats to their own interests than the risks did.

This study addresses a number of shortcomings and gaps in the literatures on politics, reform and poverty reduction in less developed countries:

  • Misperceptions: the failure to recognise that political interventions and manoeuvres can change the nature of the political game in ways that can make poverty reduction more likely, and that politics can contribute to constructive outcomes.
  • Omissions: the paucity of the literature on politicians themselves.
  • Exaggerations: the belief veto points stand in the way of poverty-orientated initiatives, and that conditions faced by politicians in the 1990s thwart poverty initiatives. This study demonstrates that politicians have more room for manoeuvre than previous analysts have argued.
  • Politicians almost always pursue poverty reduction not as an end in itself but as a means to a more important end – to serve their political interests. However, this study does not see this as alarming, but as constructive realism. If the needs of the poor serve the interests of the political leader, then the needs of the poor will be met.

Project details

start date
16 February 2002
end date
16 February 2005


About this project

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