Photo: Marco Villalta for Save the Children/

What does it mean to become a rich man? For some, getting another wife. A research team has studied poverty from below to come up with answers for designing effective policies for poverty reduction in Mozambique.

Poverty reduction has been the main focus of Swedish aid to Mozambique – as it is for other donors. But what are the actual dynamics behind poverty? And how do the poor perceive and relate to their poverty? Without understanding this, governments and donors will not be able to create effective poverty reduction policies.

When the Swedes wanted to find out whether their aid money has had any actual effects and be in a better position to plan future interventions for poverty reduction, a team of researchers embarked on a 5-year project in the province of Niassa where Swedish aid has been particularly active.

The Reality Checks Mozambique, funded by Sida and carried out jointly by CMI and COWI-Mozambique, has combined a variety of methods during fieldwork. A set of qualitative methods and immersion with individual households have given a unique intake on poverty dynamics and actual needs and priorities amongst the poor, and quantitative surveys have provided valuable data on the distribution of poverty in time and space.. 

Better for most, even worse for the few
The key findings from the Reality Checks Mozambique project are:

-The state/public sector is omnipresent in districts and communities under study, but only partially delivers on its responsibilities

-Local populations have generally experienced positive socio-economic developments with some having been able to improve their situation considerably during the five years in question

-The poorest sections of the population – including many women – are left behind and marginalized from these developments and effectively captured in extreme poverty

Structural constraints make it impossible for the poorest to break the chains of poverty on their own.

-For the poorest, it is nearly impossible to improve their conditions. The combination of small often female-headed households, material poverty and social marginalization is very difficult to break out of, says Inge Tvedten, senior researcher at CMI and project leader. 

Among the poor in Niassa, poverty is not primarily about money, but rather about marginalisation and lack of social relations. Being rich means having close ties to the extended family, important members of the community and representatives of public institutions – and for some having multiple wives that not only extend the social network but also makes it easier to diversify economic activities beyond agriculture.

-Getting more funds, many men chose to spend them on another wife. There are many reasons for doing this, but one of them is that having one more wife increases a man’s social standing. It also dramatically increases the potential for earning for money and securing further income. The different wives run different parts of the business. They are effectively part of a business plan for family companies diversifying their efforts and becoming more profitable, says Tvedten.

Getting connected
Better and easier connections to surrounding towns and cities both in Niassa province and in neighbouring Malawi are among the main factors explaining why many are better off now than a few years ago.

-When we first visited Niassa in 2011, parts of the province were very isolated. Their main source of food in the District of Lago, for example, was fish from Lake Niassa. When the people living there were connected to the district capital by a new dirt road in 2010, they could access the market and sell their fish there. They brought money back and this made it possible for small-scale entrepreneurs to start up shops offering various goods to sell in their immediate surroundings. With more money comes solar cell panels and better quality houses. The improved infrastructure has had a dynamic effect, says Tvedten.

Yet the most marginalised and poorest parts of the population have not benefitted from the development. They have not been able to connect to the new opportunities arising and cannot afford to travel to to neighbouring towns and cities to get better prices for their agricultural products. Through focus group discussions some very basic issues that severely affects the well-being of the poorest repeatedly come out on top: One is access to potable water, a second is access to health services, a third is access to electricity or solar panels and a forth is simply closer relations with family, neighbours and friends who can help out is times of crisis.

What to do
Swedish aid to Mozambique has mainly been given as budgetary support, with the Mozambican authorities implementing policies to improve the situation for the country’s poor majority. More than offering a complete list of recommendations, the Reality Checks project have been about providing an analysis of the dynamics and processes that can explain poverty and why some seem to be captured in it. The authorities and Sida will now use the analysis as a basis for further work on and implementation of poverty reduction policies. Still, the researchers provides some general lessons for development interventions.

-For poor people in local communities, the state in effect is its local representatives in public administration, in schools, hospitals, and in service delivery. Currently, public sector employees at the frontline are often poorly qualified. This causes people to lose trust in the state and its public sector. The government needs to make it attractive for well-qualified people to work at this level, says Tvedten.

Aid policies must focus on the sectors that immediately affect the lives of poor people. The researchers have found that there is hardly ever any trickle down effect from interventions at higher levels. To be efficient, policies need to focus on agriculture, fisheries and small-scale entrepreneurs. Above all, aid needs to be smarter and more directly targeted towards the poor. One alternative that has given positive results in other contexts is direct transfers of money to the poor -  conditional or not.

-There is a need for broad alliances with stakeholders at provincial and local levels where aid money can be followed up more directly. Rather than channeling aid through central ministries, it should be focused in one or a limited number of provinces where knowledge and confidence can be built, says Tvedten.