Development, Poverty and Conflict

Olympio Barbanti, Jr.

August 2004

Millennium Goal 1 - Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Julian Portilla and Gachi Tapia of Partners for Democratic Change International continue discussing land conflict in Argentina's Iguazu province.

Alleviating poverty and hunger is a vital prerequisite for achieving human development. It is intertwined with all the other Millennium Development Goals. Because of developing countries' structural economic problems, attacking social inequalities has become more of a problem of alleviating poverty, rather than transforming poverty into wealth.

There is a type of a "Catch-22" which traps developing nations. The trap is created by development interventions which are short-term and narrowly focused, carried out by NGOs or local governments, not by the national state. Often these projects address problems or face constraints that are beyond their intervention capacity. For instance, they may run into drug trafficking and other criminal activities that prevent successful intervention, yet they are powerless to stop such activities. Thus poverty alleviation programs fail, causing the continuation of poverty, which encourages more drug trading and other criminal activity. These were found to be the two main concerns of those working with poverty alleviation in the interviews carried out for this project.

Thus, there are limitations to any form of conflict resolution that one wants to implement in most developing countries. One limit is that development and social workers lack specific training in mediation or negotiation skills. Another is that there are no proper institutions in society to cushion or address social friction. The poor, if empowered, may have a clearer view of their condition, and this may eventually makes things worse. Therefore, learning how to introduce conflict resolution practices into poverty-alleviation programs is important.

Conflict Resolution and Poverty Alleviation

Julian Portilla and Gachi Tapia of Partners for Democratic Change International, recount conducting workshops to deal with land occupation conflicts in Argentina's Iguazu province.

How to introduce conflict resolution practices into poverty-alleviation programs is a difficult question. In some cases, this would imply negotiating with organized crime actors to gain access to shantytowns. One social worker from Espirito Santo state in Brazil reports that parents in that community talked to drug-dealers and hence acted as mediators to facilitate the introduction of a NGO center in the slum neighborhood. The criminals demanded that around 20% of the children would remain under their control, aiding in the drug trafficking by watching out for the police, selling small amounts of drugs on the streets and carrying out other tasks such as bringing food to their bunker.

Youth and illegal activities

The number of young people who become involved in illegal activity is directly related to poverty, as well as to the capitalist value that consumption equals happiness. Having "quality of life" is thought to mean having access to goods and services, which is seen as a way to achieve happiness and often, respect from others. Internationalization of the economy has made permanent and secure employment a rare luxury. As a result, most of the poor are forced to make their living through the "informal economic sector." This includes street peddling, prostitution, drug traffic, and smuggling.

Payments for "informal" activities are often much higher than for official ones. Children who work for drug dealers can make around US $200 per month, which is more than an unskilled adult can make in the formal market after a life of working. In addition, those involved with crime have their sort of "social-security" plans, as criminals provide medicine and doctors, and even coffins, when needed. Because of growing poverty and retrenched state activities, criminals in Brazil, as in other developing countries, are now able to control certain territories (mostly in shantytowns and drug-producing, rural areas). To do this, they have become equipped with weapons that used to be reserved for military use.

Maria Livia de Castro, an NGO representative, explained how the official city map does not correspond to reality, as in fact "the [drug] traffic's map is the one that is respected." Drug-dealers decide who has access to their territories, even if they are public servants. Police can only get into shantytowns when they carry out special operations with large numbers of men.

Empowerment of the Disadvantaged

A common strategy of those working with conflict resolution in poor areas around the world has been the empowerment of the disadvantaged. However, empowerment may lead to the opposite effect, as the empowered may become a threat within their own communities.

Neide Maria de Castro, a social worker with a poverty-alleviation program, told the following story:

A lady was saying that she wanted a ticket to return to her home state, Alagoas, because she was being threatened. ... Her partner wanted both her kids to sell drugs and he didn't want them to be part of the [social] program [that tried to get kids out of the drug trade.


In another case, the stepfather of Roniel, a thirteen years-old boy, is involved with drug dealing and he is telling Roniel to sell drugs too. But Roniel doesn't want to, which we perceived when he started to appear distressed. Imagine the conflict this kid is living. He wants to be part of the [social] program, but he has been prohibited from doing so by his parents.

Many kinds of violence are a common in poor families. Many households are headed by women, who have many children. Fathers have not adopted the child, or have gone away to try to find income opportunities, and eventually lose contact. For a woman, living alone increases vulnerability, so often they prefer to have a man around for protection. Some of these men see the children as a burden, so putting them to work, even in the drug traffic, is not uncommon.

Additionally, the flexibility of labor relations has made secure employment more an exception than a rule. My research found that many children in metropolitan areas are the second or third generation of a family in which parents have never had permanent, secure employment. This means that they do not have the values associated with formal work - ethics, commitment, sense of community, sense of social responsibility, social security, working rights, accountability, etc. This poses a serious question to normal procedures of conflict resolution, as it deviates from Western values and realities. Poverty affects values as well. It has been found that many poor people think they do not have any rights because they are poor, or worse, they find themselves guilty for being poor. In such a case, empowerment should begin from the very basic level of building a view of the self and of the world.

This may be restrained in many cases, as it was found that some Evangelical denominations, which are very active in poorer areas, preach that children should not play, as it leads to sin. As stated by Maria Joana de Oliveira:

You have to deal with families that live in between the radicalism of doing nothing and total permissive behavior. They live like that, there is no balance. So you can find moms that go to the Church (...) and, sometimes on behalf of God, they penalize the kid that is playing, 'cause playing is a pleasure that has become a luxury for poor kids. So we notice that the kids that don't play [during the program] ... their mothers go to those Churches. They suffer.

So, resolving conflict related to poverty alleviation is a broad task. It involves changes in structural economic conditions that are difficult to implement. Conflict practitioners could, however, contribute to local negotiations and mediations, but this brings up innumerable problems. The challenges require a careful and accurate assessment of the situation, as ineffective intervention in such delicate circumstances can make things even worse, rather than better.

Use the following to cite this article:
Barbanti, Jr., Olympio . "Development, Poverty and Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2004 <>.

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