Syllabus: Global Poverty and Inequality

December 3, 2013  • Posted in Teaching Resources  •  0 Comments

Stephen Young, University of Wisconsin-Madison

There has recently been a surge in optimism that the first half of the twenty-first century will mark the moment when poverty finally becomes history. But who are “the poor”, and why is their share of the world’s resources so dismal? Moreover, does ending poverty also mean addressing inequality and extreme concentrations of wealth at the top-of-the-pyramid?

These are some of the key issues we’ll be tackling in this course. We’ll begin by looking at broad statistical trends in poverty and inequality over the last century. In the process, we’ll also evaluate the different ways in which poverty can be conceptualized and measured. Are absolute poverty lines, such as the World Bank’s $1-a-day threshold, actually meaningful? Or should poverty instead be understood as a relative condition – if so, relative to whom? As we’ll see, there is a lot at stake politically in how we construct and interpret the numbers.

Next, we’ll examine different approaches to explaining and intervening in poverty. We begin with work that treats poverty as residual. The economist Jeffrey Sachs suggests that a combination of climate and geography has produced “poverty traps”, places that cannot be effectively integrated into global markets without the help of international aid. But scholars such as Dambisa Moyo see aid as part of the problem, arguing that it is failed policies and institutions, not geography, that sustains poverty.

We then turn our attention to work that sees poverty as relational. According to David Mosse, poverty is a consequence of unequal political and economic relations and processes of social categorization. Tackling poverty therefore means altering the structures through which wealth and power are distributed. But how might this be done? We’ll examine efforts to raise wages, increase incomes and build political alliances in different parts of the world.

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