Understanding the relationship between poverty and prosperity as looped rather than linear prompts reflection and reimagination of the meaning of prosperity and post-growth futures.
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A feminist relational perspective on poverty and prosperity

Understanding the relationship between poverty and prosperity as looped rather than linear prompts reflection and reimagination of the meaning of prosperity and post-growth futures.

What is the relationship between poverty and prosperity? Why does this matter? Since the emergence of the United Nations, the objective of alleviating extreme poverty and promoting prosperity has been central to international development policy. Poverty, typically defined as lacking material possessions and wealth, is juxtaposed against the idea of prosperity, which encompasses success, well-being, and wealth. In classical development cooperation policy, economic growth is the primary instrument for alleviating poverty and attaining prosperity. Yet, despite decades of economic growth, income and wealth inequality have continued to rise within and between states, and levels of extreme poverty have once again started to increase.

Annual UN Human Development reports depict a global landscape characterised by declining ecosystems and growing inequality. Climate breakdown, entrenched inequalities, persistent discrimination based on various factors, and pervasive poverty and hunger afflict the majority of the global population, while wealth accumulates for the richest individuals. Murphy’s paper investigates what has gone wrong and why. It critically examines contemporary mainstream development conceptualisations of poverty and prosperity to understand why efforts to reduce poverty and increase prosperity through the primary instrument of economic growth are failing.

Fictitious hierarchy of values & fallacious separatism

Applying a feminist relational lens, Murphy critically interrogates the methods of measuring poverty as a distinct concept, the mal-distributive effects of global economic capitalist structures, the assumptions, norms, and values upon which these structures rest, and the false separatism between economic, social, and ecological systems that these structures sustain. Within these structures, a fictitious hierarchy of values emerge, prioritising economic growth, market value, individualism and independence over communities, ecosystems, solidarities and eco-social well-being. It identifies the norms and values of reciprocity, care, and connection based on practices of redistribution and pre-distrubtion as necessary for the eradication of extreme poverty and multidimensional inequalities.

Although there are competing and contested understandings, theories, and world views of development, all forms of development entail change. The study of ethical governance concerns the examination of how development is designed, planned, implemented, monitored, evaluated, and overseen.

Susan P. Murphy

The empirical problem: The relationship between rising poverty and inequality, consolidating wealth and prosperity-

Since the establishment of post-World War II international development institutions, economic growth has been central to poverty reduction efforts, with poverty and prosperity seen as opposite ends of a spectrum influenced by Western capitalist norms. Economic growth is often viewed as a pathway from poverty to prosperity, yet the relationship between economic growth and prosperity is debated. Rising gross domestic product (GDP) levels have been linked to environmental degradation, climate breakdown, increasing inequalities, and multidimensional poverty, prompting reflection on the meaning of prosperity, its beneficiaries, and its implications.

Marked by problems of feasibility, inequality, and unsustainability, Murphy’s paper finds that contemporary efforts to alleviate poverty through economic growth as a path to global prosperity fundamentally misdiagnose the problem. It suggests that there is a misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between poverty and prosperity in the global capitalist economic order. Rather than distinct binary opposites, the relationship between poverty and prosperity is more accurately understood as looped with some prospering at the expense of others’ impoverishment.

Insights from a feminist relational perspective:

Murphy interrogates the mainstream international development paradigm where prosperity is understood as a condition of independence actualised through processes of maximum extraction, exploitation, and accumulation. This paradigm ignores the ecological embeddedness and social interconnectivity and mutual dependencies of human beings for existence, survival, and well-being. When poverty is conceived of and treated as a discrete technical concept in development policy, there is limited space for questioning the embedded norms that drive deprivation for some in the pursuit of material prosperity for others.

Locations, histories, and socio-environmental conditions directly influence lived experiences of poverty and the possibility of prosperity. From the moment of birth and the assignment of social identities, specific functions, roles, and values are ascribed to each human being. The nature of relationships, self-understandings, and expectations are set within these pre-existing socially embedded structures. To understand the influence of these structures, a feminist relational approach to exploring the dynamic relationship between poverty and prosperity must be attentive to the interacting and overlapping spheres within which human relationships are embedded. It should also consider the underlying governing norms and values that sustain these systems.

This approach reveals three critically important fallacies. Firstly, the fallacy of conceptualising poverty and prosperity as distinct binary opposites within the contemporary global capitalist order. Secondly, it highlights the fallacy of development models that treat economic systems as separate entities prioritised above social and ecological systems. This assumption, as many researchers argue, is not only misleading but also dangerous, risking the undermining of its own conditions of possibility by neglecting its relationship with social and ecological domains. Thirdly, traditional practices and measurements of economic development overlook the influence of gender, class, and race structures and relations at different scales.

Such conceptualisations of the poverty-prosperity nexus obscure the social and ecological dynamics that enable and sustain the contemporary capitalist organisational form, along with the resulting patterns of distribution and recognition. By exclusively prioritising economic growth, underlying social systems and relations remain naturalised and unchallenged, perpetuating assigned roles within the institutionalised social order of capitalism.

Beyond capitalist expansion: Prosperity as a collective good-

Within the contemporary international development paradigm, values and norms associated with the assertion of independence and demonstrations of control and autonomous action are celebrated and rewarded. Maximum accumulation of material assets through extraction and exploitation of available resources (both social and natural) provides the basis for non-material symbols of social status, recognition, and power – the ingredients of a distinct conception of prosperity. It is the celebration and reward of these characteristics that require challenge if understandings of prosperity are to be compatible with the alleviation of poverty and acceptance that well-being is a condition to which all human beings have a legitimate claim.

Adopting a feminist relational approach to scrutinise the interplay between poverty, prosperity, and the underlying values shaping global socio-political and economic structures reveals significant insights into the limitations of prevailing conceptualisations. This approach challenges reductionist frames and underscores the importance of recognising the inherent embeddedness and interconnectedness of the human condition. It confronts masculinised norms perpetuating the ideal of prosperity as independence attained through extractive practices, highlighting the impossibility of complete independence for any individual and advocating for a shift towards valuing interdependence and mutual support. Emphasising the significance of care and social reproduction in sustaining well-being for all living beings, this perspective calls for a redefinition of prosperity that prioritises these elements over narrow economic pursuits.

Furthermore, embracing reciprocity as a foundational principle is essential for ensuring sustainable relationships and resource management over time. Instead of viewing social and natural systems solely as sources of value to be exploited, an ethos of reciprocity acknowledges the need for giving back and replenishing resources. By prioritising mutual exchange and sustainability over extraction, this paradigm promotes a more balanced and equitable approach to societal well-being and resource utilisation, challenging the prevailing extractive and exploitative practices entrenched within mainstream development models.

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Journal reference

Murphy, S. P. (2022). The relationship between poverty and prosperity: a feminist relational account. Journal of Global Ethics, 18(1), 82-99. https://doi.org/10.1080/17449626.2022.2052155

Susan P. Murphy is an Associate Professor in Development Practice at the School of Natural Sciences (Discipline of Geography), Trinity College Dublin, and the Principal Investigator of GEOFORMATIONS, a European Research Council (ERC) funded project examining the geographies of dynamic governance assemblages in development cooperation civil society spaces (2023-2028). Her research interests lie in international development governance, ethics, policy, and practice. She directs the Climate Justice in Development research group.