As Nelson Mandela says, poverty and extreme inequality rank alongside slavery and apartheid as evils that can be vanquished. This book argues for a radical redistribution of opportunities, but also of power and assets, to break the cycle of poverty and inequality.
– Duncan Green, From Poverty to Power
Duncan Green is the author of From Poverty to Power and has been Oxfam GB’s Head of Research since November 2004. From Poverty to Power contains the accumulated knowledge of over 20 years spent researching and writing about reducing poverty and combating injustice and, as he says, trying to `do justice to the complexity of the world, while still believing there is a story about how it can be changed for the better.
Duncan’s life could have been very different. Excelling in the sciences at school, he studied Physics at Oxford University, graduating with a first class degree. But it was a post-university trip to South America in 1979-81 that set him on his current path in international development.
Teaching English in Argentina, at the height of the military dictatorship, he learned Spanish and heard first-hand from his students and other friends about the disappearances of their relatives, and the casual violence and arrogance of the police. On leaving Buenos Aires, Duncan traveled to Peru where he met Tito Castro, a Jesuit seminarian-turned-activist who quickly became a mentor and friend. Tito lived in a small village on the shore of Lake Titicaca, working with local indigenous leaders to help them understand and claim their rights, by running discussion groups and lending from a library of largely Marxist books.
After Duncan left, the area was taken over by the Shining Path (the communist Peruvian group, well-known for the violent imposition of its beliefs). Some 25 years later, having assumed Tito would have been killed, like thousands of other non-Shining Path activists, Duncan was astonished and delighted to discover from Oxfam’s Peru program manager that Tito was alive and well and a professor of sociology in Lima. Duncan dedicated his previous book to him.
Traveling and working in Latin America as a journalist during the civil war in El Salvador and the heyday of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Duncan saw time and again the David vs. Goliath nature of country and international politics. The role of Goliath was usually played by the United States. He learned about the importance of getting economies right, and the central role of politics. He says: `One turning point was going out as a journalist on patrol with the Sandinista army, and seeing the respectful way their political officers talked to local people talking about the revolution but not forcing their views. Sandinistas weren’t always saints, but that team was very impressive. And the patrol was the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life – yomping through mud and forests from 6am. By 8am I was already almost in tears. Unforgettable.
Duncan traveled to and wrote about Latin America for 15 years, writing several books including Hidden Lives: Voices of Children in Latin America and the Caribbean (1998); Silent Revolution: The Rise and Crisis of Market Economics in Latin America (2003, 2nd edition) and Faces of Latin America (2006, 3rd edition). These were written while he was working as a journalist and writer, mainly at the Latin America Bureau, a not for profit think tank.
In 1997, he moved to CAFOD, the Catholic aid agency for England and Wales, as Policy Analyst on Trade and Globalization. He says: `I’m nonreligious, but you can’t work on Latin America without recognizing the profound importance of religion (whether Roman Catholic, Protestant or African) in shaping identity and politics. I developed a huge respect for the liberation theologians and radical church activists who provided the foot soldiers of the progressive movement in Latin America. Many of them gave their lives; all of them made huge sacrifices for their beliefs.
While at CAFOD he published many papers, including The Northern WTO Agenda on Investment: Do as we say, not as we did (with Ha Joon Chang, South Center/CAFOD, 2003), and Dumping on the Poor: The Common Agricultural Policy, the WTO and International Development (with Matthew Griffith, CAFOD, 2002). He was seconded from CAFOD to the UK government’s Department for International Development in 2004, as a Senior Policy Adviser on Trade and Development where he covered agricultural and non-agricultural trade in goods. His geographical focus had expanded to include Asia and Africa inevitable given his developing interest and expertise in making globalization and international trade work for development.
When considering a move to Oxfam as Head of Research in late 2004, Duncan was at first reluctant to attempt to step into the shoes of the out-going post-holder, Kevin Watkins (also a prolific author and renowned thinker about development). Duncan says: `Luckily, enough people hassled and flattered me into changing my mind I’m weak…`. A job title isn’t the only thing Duncan shares with Kevin Watkins: they also both possess a deep passion for and thoughtfulness about their work, while being entirely approachable, humorous, and always ready for a debate. They know there is always more to learn. Duncan brings these attitudes and qualities to the deadly serious issues in From Poverty to Power.
Duncan’s journalistic background makes his writing pithy and expressive, keeping the needs of his audience firmly in mind, and his latest book is both full of careful research and analysis, and creative, enjoyable prose. As he says: ` There’s no point knowing stuff if you can’t communicate it well.
A pragmatic idealist, Duncan’s beliefs have been shaped by the powerful forces he’s seen at work around the world, affecting the lives of the poor and discriminated-against for good or ill. From Latin America he learned about the power of social movements, the primacy of rights, and to see activism and politics as a moral struggle. In Africa he witnessed the complexities of aid planning and delivery, the possibilities when states and citizens benefit from their natural resources, and the difficulties inherent in building effective states. And in Asia he saw the importance of the state in driving development, the potential impact of economic growth, and the power of optimism.
And did Duncan enjoy writing From Poverty to Power? Definitely. He says: `This book has allowed me to pick the brains of Oxfam’s finest minds, try and piece all this together into an overarching narrative, and then discuss it with hundreds of different experts and people on the ground. It’s an extraordinary privilege.
Duncan lives in Brixton (`the centre of the universe), South London, with his wife, two children and two cats.