Harvard Educational Review
  1. Elite Perceptions of Poverty and Inequality

    Edited by Elisa P. Reis and Mick Moore

    London: Zed Books, 2005. 288 pp. $96.36.

    A paramount challenge for social policymakers is garnering the support of influential stakeholders in order to successfully develop and implement effective social policy. Elisa Reis and Mick Moore’s edited volume, Elite Perceptions of Poverty and Inequality, explores the attitudes of developing-nation elites toward issues of poverty and inequality. Each author presents a case study of one of the following countries: Brazil, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Haiti, and South Africa. Based on data collected through written surveys and interviews, the authors describe elite perceptions of poverty, its causes, and possible solutions. One of the most striking and relevant findings is the emphasis elites place on the important role education can play in reducing poverty.

    Participants in the studies were selected based largely on their elite institutional membership in fields including government, business, religion, and academia. The study samples range in size from 64 in Haiti to 320 in Brazil, and reflect the local political and structural context, such as a purposeful oversampling of non-Whites in the South African study. The authors admit that their samples are not representative of the entire population of elites in each country.

    Educators focused on issues of social justice might question why the authors chose to focus on elite perceptions. As Reis and Moore write in the book’s introduction, one of the main motivations for undertaking this research was to balance the current dialogue on perceptions of poverty in the field of social science, which is invested in gathering data on the poor’s multiple perceptions of poverty and inequality. The five case studies profiled in this book attempt to connect the ways elites understand the lives of the poor with the action or inaction these elites take in the face of poverty. This is carried out through an application of social consciousness, as conceived by Abram de Swaan, who also contributes an essay addressing the broader question of why welfare states have not been instituted in the southern and eastern nations of the world as they were a century ago in Western Europe and North America.

    As described in the introduction of Elite Perceptions, de Swaan’s 1988 book In Care of the State: Health Care, Education and Welfare in Europe and the USA in the Modern Era explains that a state’s action to counter poverty is predicated in part on the social consciousness of its elites. Social consciousness is measured by (1) an awareness of the interdependence of social groups and the effects of poverty on the elites; (2) the realization that the elite are, to some extent, responsible for the poor; and (3) the belief that methods to improve the lives of the poor do, in fact, exist. All of the studies in this volume attempt to gauge the social consciousness of the elites interviewed, employing de Swaan’s framework. This review focuses primarily on the treatment of de Swaan’s third point in Elite Perceptions by summarizing the findings around elites’ perceptions of education as a means to reduce poverty.

    The analysis found in chapter 2, “Perceptions of Poverty and Inequality among Brazilian Elites,” is based on information derived from two waves of data collection: The first was a questionnaire given to 320 elite businessmen, politicians, union leaders, and bureaucrats that predated the decision to carry out an international and comparative study. This served as the pilot study for the other cases in the book. The second wave consisted of in-depth interviews and semistructured surveys. The study resulted in findings that were generally consistent across the four other cases, including that rural poverty was perceived as less intense than urban, that the elite largely considered the state to be responsible for reducing poverty but were doubtful of its ability to succeed, and that despite the fact that many of the elites interviewed were part of the state apparatus, they distanced themselves from its failure to reduce poverty.

    The most powerful and consistent finding across these five national contexts was that elites were attracted to social policies and antipoverty strategies that increase access to and improve the quality of education. Of the 311 Brazilian respondents surveyed, 85.5 percent stated that free and universal basic education is both a viable and desirable social policy, and 35.1 percent stated the same for free university education. In Bangladesh, 19 percent of the elites surveyed cited lack of access to and poor quality of education and health care as the causes of poverty; only bad governance garnered more responses (20%). Haitian elites named lack of education as the most common cause of poverty, and around 90 percent said that the government should guarantee access to basic education. In South Africa, nonpolitical elites were especially enthusiastic about long-term solutions to poverty, focusing on education as a means to enhance human resources.

    While elites in all of the countries profiled emphasized the relationship between education and poverty, this emphasis seemed somewhat less pronounced in the Philippines, where only three of the fifty-seven research participants stated that the education system could make the greatest contribution to poverty reduction, rather than the government. The authors do not explicitly address this departure from the larger theme of a belief that education can positively influence poverty; however, thirty-four of the elite respondents answered that nongovernmental organizations could make the greatest contribution. The authors interpret this response as evidence that those surveyed believe poverty is largely a political problem and thus, we might conclude, not one that could be solved through education. Elite understanding of how exposure to education would reduce poverty was also somewhat varied, ranging from Haitian elites who suggest that education would provide access to the language of power (French), to Bangladeshi elites’ belief that education would provide the poor with an awareness of the “modern economic rationality” needed to ensure national development. Despite these cross-national differences in conceiving of how education functions to reduce poverty, the strategy of state provision of education as an antipoverty measure echoed across the various countries.

    In the final chapter of Elite Perceptions of Poverty and Inequality, Mick Moore and Naomi Hossain analyze some of the key findings arising from this research, including why elites across nations place special emphasis on education as a solution to poverty. They offer three general explanations: (1) despite a general lack of confidence in the state’s capacity, elites have faith in the government’s ability to construct schools; (2) elites assume education will address and fix what they perceive to be the traditional and backward attitudes of the poor, and their lack of culture; and (3) elites believe that education can raise the quality of human resources, which is linked to economic prosperity. Drawing from these conclusions, the authors suggest that policymakers could rely on education policy as an entry point into the implementation of poverty-reduction programs, as more traditional welfare programs may garner less support from elites.

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