Research blog


A tale of two villages What policymakers can do to turn bad luck into prosperity.

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Ramesh Sunam looks at what policymakers can do to turn bad luck into prosperity.

When I was visiting rural Nepal last year, I stopped in a village with beautiful houses lining both sides of the road. A few motorbikes passed by as I sat at the local kiosk drinking a masala tea. It seemed to me to be a perfectly prosperous village.

But just a 15-minute walk down the ‘prosperous village’ road, I found a smaller village consisting of tiny huts made of mud and bamboo poles. The children there looked undernourished and poorly dressed. Although only a short walk, it was a long way from the prosperity I had seen up the road.

During my research trip to Nepal, I met policymakers and researchers who work to reduce the proportion of people living in poverty. They analyse massive volumes of data to work out why people stay poor and how to help them get out of it. Success stories of the few that do escape poverty are highlighted and widely shared.

While this learning from experience on anti-poverty programs is admirable, by focusing on the successes of anti-poverty programs we often miss the voices of those who remain trapped in poverty and are marginalised for decades. Listening to them is important because their stories, and the barriers they face, can be more complex than we think.

My research looks at those who have remained poor despite their individual efforts to escape poverty. It’s a topic that has recently received growing academic and policy attention, including Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century which highlights why inequality matters now more than before. To navigate different aspects of poverty I went to rural villages in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, and spoke to policymakers and local development non-government organisations.

What creates obstacles for the poor to become better-off? Is it their own failure or are there structural circumstances beyond their control that keep them in poverty? These are complex questions.

But one of my discussions with an NGO worker was enlightening. I asked him why many people in a village he was working in remained trapped in poverty. He suggested it was because they didn’t utilise the free education available to them.

When I visited the small huts of these villagers I saw goats kept beside their beds, huts not connected to electricity, and children performing household chores while their parents looked around for casual work. It seemed to me that under those circumstances it would be very hard for them to utilise free education. When I suggested this to the NGO worker, he said what I saw there was ‘bad luck’.

I have drawn two key insights from this exchange. First, there is a perception that the poor have remained poor because they have not done enough to come out of poverty traps. This notion of poverty puts all of the blame on the poor, the victims, and their failures without considering the questions of why their efforts cannot work or why they cannot make the most of the available exit options.

Second, we often assume that the poor can access free education and health facilities without considering the complex barriers that prevent them from using these services effectively. In this case, the children’s poor performance at school was to do with their household work burden and improper housing – which both prevented them from making the most of the free public education accessible to them.

In terms of pro-poor policies, we often hear that investment in education, public health and rural infrastructure can boost economic growth, which in turn, helps create employment and reduce poverty. We need more of such investments and growth. However, we should not expect the benefits to automatically reach the huts of the poor, as in the rural villages of Nepal, which have remained impoverished for generations.

Research and policy debates should consider how we could enable the chronically poor to access decent employment, free education and health facilities, and reap the fruits of economic growth.

We also need to listen more closely to those who don’t have success stories of escaping poverty to see if they can inform policy that affects them.

Research and policy re-orientation in this direction may offer better ways, if not the best alternatives, to ensure better policy for economic growth, infrastructure, health and education that will directly benefit the poor. Such policy rethinking may assist our endeavours to help the poor to turn their ‘bad luck’ to ‘prosperity’.

Otherwise we may find ourselves charting the same old road, no matter how high our hopes or aspirations.


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Labor mobility – What is it like to be a migrant? 

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Implications for a globalizing world

In our globalizing world, even rural people are becoming highly mobile and working outside their home countries. The rise of this transnational labor migration is having profound effects on societies, both in the sending and the receiving countries.
In my research, I focus on drawing empirical insights from Asian countries, in particular Nepal, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. Recent studies have looked at people’s mobility in Asia and the flows of remittances, as well as the impact on development. Building on the existing studies, I concentrate on two fundamental questions: How do Asian workers fit into the labor migration trajectories, and how does labor migration influence their rural livelihoods back home?

Stability and precarity

With all those migrant workers flooding into labor markets in destination countries, I want to see the level of exploitation or positive inclusion in the labor markets. Some workers are exploited, while others enjoy better terms and working conditions, and I want to investigate the degree to which some work assignments lead to exploitation or precarious inclusion in the labor market, while others enjoy better salaries and decent working conditions.
For example, people working in Japan might have families and households in rural Nepal, a focus country of my research. If the migrant workers are enjoying decent working conditions and getting good salaries, how does that impact their livelihoods and their economic and social status back home?
On the other hand, if they are facing exploitation, or are perhaps suffering miserable living conditions here, how does that affect their family and socio-economic status back home? I’ll be tracing this line of inter-connections between migrant communities and destination countries.

Development narratives

People’s expectations and hopes often evolve after they experience working overseas. Many migrants are originally from poorer areas, and initially their aspirations have more to do with simple survival. But later, things change a bit, and they start to want a better house, education for their children, and the like. This evolution continues, because poor people migrate two or three times or more. The first time, they migrate to repay the loans they took out to finance their migration; the next few times, they go to accumulate savings.
When they go home, their cash and aspirations affect a lot of things, including land prices. In urban areas, land prices tend to rise. But in rural areas, because migration can cause labor shortages, rural land prices often sink, because migrants want to buy land in better locations close to roads so they can have access to good education and medical facilities.

Policy implications

With this work I hope to glean insights that can be used to promote safer and more beneficial labor migration and reduce poverty and vulnerabilities in Asia, where over half of the world’s poor live.
In migrant-sending countries like Laos and Nepal, migration has been politically palatable because there are high levels of unemployment and a scarcity of jobs. Sending young people overseas avoids social and political unrest, as well as giving the economy much-needed cash.
In the past, agriculture was a major sector that absorbed the labor force, but now that the sector is declining, and it’s not an attractive sector for most young people, as their aspirations shift.
So the sending countries face a difficult policy paradox. Governments always say they want to control migration, that they want to use their labor force to develop their own economies, but at the same time they also make policies favorable for migration, because they see the benefits, such as maintaining the economy through remittances.

Mixed methodology

I use a mixed sort of methodology, involving both qualitative (interviews) and quantitative (surveys) techniques. But I primarily use a qualitative approach — fieldwork (for gaining fresh insights from the ground) has always been key to collecting data for my research. This helps me to understand the complexity of (and to explain) continuities and changes in the lives of people and landscapes in Asian rural areas.
Initially Japan was not included in my project, but now because I’m here it will be easier for me to do fieldwork and field research with Nepali migrants. Lots of Nepalese migrants are there, so I’ll also include Japan, in addition to my research in Nepal and Laos and Thailand, for a wider comparative study.
People who go to Malaysia or Qatar or Saudi Arabia are different from those who come to Japan. To come here they have to be much wealthier — the migration costs including recruitment fees are higher, for a start — and they have different aspirations, such as buying a patch of land or a house in urban areas, and rising in the upper middle class. So the insights I gather here in Japan will be somewhat different, but valuable nonetheless.

Interview and Composition:Robert Cameron
In cooperation with: Waseda University Graduate School of Political Science J-School

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