How do social movements contribute to poverty reduction

Essay, 2011

14 Pages, Grade: Merit



1. Introduction

2. What are social movements?
2.1 New social movements theory
2.1 Globalization and women’s movements

3. Defining poverty

4. The contribution of social movements to poverty reduction

5. Case studies
5.1 Case study from Peru: Extractive industry movement
5.2 Case study from India: Women’s empowerment movement

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Poverty reduction is a topic widely discussed in research and the media as one of the most vital issues for developing countries. It was placed as one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A large amount of research and reports have been presented about poverty reduction. At the same time, social movements have also been extensively studied, resulting in the emergence of many social movements related theories.

Despite the causal relation between social movements and poverty reduction, a limited number of studies have revealed the impacts of social movements on poverty reduction since both fields are placed under different analytical categories (GSDRC, 2009).

This paper will investigate how social movements contribute to poverty reduction. It is divided into four sections. The first section will explain the meaning of social movements as well as reviewing the New Social Movements theory and globalization and women’s movements. The second section attempts to define poverty from different perspectives that would help in finding the relationship between social movements and poverty. The third section will illustrate social movements’ contribution to poverty reduction. The last section will show the impact of social movements on poverty reduction through presenting two case studies, one from Peru and one from India. Then conclusions will be presented.

2. What are social movements?

Social movements are attempts made by a group of people to create a new social order. Jenkins (cited in Zirakazadeh, 2006, p.4) defined social movements as ‘ a series of collective actions conducted to bring about change in social structures’.

Social movements can be described as a number of protests that are organized under continuous planned activities to occur in different places over time and having one common aim to be achieved (Bebbington, 2009). More specifically, post-structural approaches perceive social movements as activities that address exclusion and marginalization issues within the society (Bebbington, 2007).

There are three types of social movements. The first type is that related to market accumulation such as labour markets and free trade. The second type is associated with asset distribution such as drinking water, sanitation and land distribution. The third type of social movement addresses different forms of discrimination against specific groups because of ethnicity, sex or religion (Mitlin and Bebbington, 2006). Each of these three types has identified challenges in different fields. The first type challenges the market and production, the second type challenges the state and service provision, while the third type challenges society (Bebbington et al, 2010).

2.1 New Social movements theory

Despite the presence of many theories about social movements, New Social Movements (NSM) theory is considered the most prominent theory. NSM appeared as an alternative to the Resource Mobilization (RM) theory, which focuses on the organizational function and ignores the circumstances behind the emergence of the social movements. However, NSM and RM could be considered as more complementary to each other rather than competing with each other (Kirmani, 2008).

NSM was coined in response to the weak explanation and irrational analysis of classical Marxism in claiming that production is purely the root of political and social collective actions. Meanwhile, NSM has a more comprehensive and reasonable explanation as it considers politics, identity, gender and ethnicity as possible roots for movements (Buechler, 1995; Kirmani, 2008).

Offe (cited in Kirmani, 2008, p.12) believes that NSM is ‘Reaction against the increasing forms of domination being imposed by the state on the individual in contemporary society’ while Laclau and Muffe (cited in Kirmani, 2008, p.12) consider the emergence of NSM as a reaction against both the government and the expansion of ‘capitalist relations’ in all aspects of life.

Habermas (cited in Bebbington, 2009, p.4) argues that the emergence of social movements aims to resist the so called ‘colonization of the lifeworld’ which means the great control and significant impact of the ‘external institutions’ such as the market on the practices of daily life. An example of this would be free market approaches and their effects on prices. Another argument regarding the reason behind the emergence of social movements presented by Escobar and Alvrez (cited in Bebbington, 2009, p.5) states that the emergence of social movements is due to the increasing sense of grievance within the social order. This sense of grievance could be either generated because of the changes in political and economic aspects in one society or because of the increasing awareness among social groups of their complaints, their rights and the ways they can address issues (Bebbington, 2009).

It is argued that the most active participants in the NSMs are well educated and have full employment with a secure income (Kirmani, 2008). However, we can see from the SEWA movement, the case study elaborated in Section five, that the movement was launched by highly educated activists but would not be able to succeed without a high degree of mobilization among poor rural women who lack education and employment (Blaxall, 2004). Therefore, it could be argued that the success of social movements depends on integration and cooperation between both classes of the society.

2.2 Globalization and women’s movements

Since the 1990s, protests against International Financial Institutions (IFI) have notably increased due to IFI support for neoliberal approaches that have negatively affected local communities around the world. As a result, we have seen the emergence of ‘transformative power of social movements’, and large mobilizations against globalization based on transnational activism have occurred. It is believed that Globalization has played a role in the increasing interest of women’s movements in transnational organization in recent decades. Organizing the women’s movement transnationally has opened the path of cooperation to address women’s issues. It is argued that transnational organization contributes to the improvement of local movements (Kirmani, 2008).

3. Defining poverty

Poverty can be defined in various different ways. It could be defined as ‘Inadequate command over resources relative needs in terms of income, wealth and assets’. This definition of poverty mainly focuses on economic status (Oster, 1978, p.4). However, poverty is not only a matter of income but also relates to other basic needs and freedoms. According to the World Bank, poverty has several characteristics including deprivation from freedom of choice and freedom of action, inadequate food and housing, and lack of access to education and health services. People who experience poverty do not have the ability to influence decisions taken by the state which affect their living standards (WB, 2000).

The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) of the Oxford and Human Development Initiative also takes into account more dimensions of poverty besides income in measuring poverty. It shows different ways in which people are deprived. The MPI uses three dimensions: education, health and living standards by evaluating ten indicators; nutrition, child mortality, years of schooling, school attendance, cooking fuel, sanitation, water, electricity, floor and assets (OPHI, 2011). Accordingly, the evaluation of social movements’ contribution to poverty reduction should not be limited to income generation but should also consider different dimensions of poverty.

4. The contribution of social movements to poverty reduction

Most of the literature concerning social movements has focused on their aims and mechanisms of work while largely ignoring their impacts and contribution to development processes and social change. However, social movements are perceived as an important factor in eliminating social exclusion and helping the poor to obtain their rights of access to basic needs. Moreover, movements could emerge to stand against the widespread of power relations which play a role in creating poverty (GSDRC, 2009). Bebbington (2009, p.3) highlighted the relationship between power relations, social movements and poverty when he said;

‘Poverty is a product of prevailing relations of power, and social movements emerge as part of and in response to these power relations. Such movements are, therefore, relevant for discussions of poverty and its reduction’.

In reference to the different types of social movements mentioned in section two, it could be noticed that social movements could demand fair access to the resources which are the basic needs of the poor (Mitlin and Bebbington, 2006).

Since social movements combat poverty, it is necessary to understand means and the process of in which movements contribute to poverty reduction. Bebbington et al (2010) argue that despite the fact that social movements do not address poverty issues directly, they usually tackle processes that have implications for producing poverty. Bebbington (cited in GSDRC, 2009, p.2) identifies four aspects through which social movements contribute to poverty reduction. Firstly, challenging the state policies that result in increasing poverty and the marginalization of groups of people. For example, in Latin America social movements have been organized in response to free trade policies. Secondly, altering the cultural politics of poverty and changing the community’s identification of poverty. For instance, in some Latin American countries like Ecuador social movements have helped to highlight the association between poverty and other issues including ethnicity. Thirdly, promoting access for the poor to assets such as land and housing. For example, the Landless People’s Movement emerged in Brazil to support poor people and farmers who do not possess land. Fourthly, movements’ engagements with the government can bring good results in some cases. For example, Peruvian extractive social movements, will be discussed in details in section five, have conciliation with the mining companies and government that helped them to consider improving the community (GSDRC, 2009).


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How do social movements contribute to poverty reduction
University of Birmingham
MSc. International Development
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Abdelfatah Ibrahim (Author), 2011, How do social movements contribute to poverty reduction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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