NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Globalization and Poverty

"The evidence strongly suggests that export growth and incoming foreign investment have reduced poverty everywhere from Mexico to India to Poland. Yet at the same time currency crises can cripple the poor."

Does globalization, as its advocates maintain, help spread the wealth? Or, as its critics charge, does globalization hurt the poor? In a new book titled Globalization and Poverty, edited by NBER Research Associate Ann Harrison, 15 economists consider these and other questions. In Globalization and Poverty (NBER Working Paper No. 12347), Harrison summarizes many of the findings in the book. Her central conclusion is that the poor will indeed benefit from globalization if the appropriate complementary policies and institutions are in place.

Harrison first notes that most of the evidence on the links between globalization and poverty is indirect. To be sure, as developing countries have become increasingly integrated into the world trading system over the past 20 years, world poverty rates have steadily fallen. Yet little evidence exists to show a clear-cut cause-and-effect relationship between these two phenomena.

Many of the studies in Globalization and Poverty in fact suggest that globalization has been associated with rising inequality, and that the poor do not always share in the gains from trade. Other themes emerge from the book. One is that the poor in countries with an abundance of unskilled labor do not always gain from trade reform. Another is that the poor are more likely to share in the gains from globalization when workers enjoy maximum mobility, especially from contracting economic sectors into expanding sectors (India and Colombia). Gains likewise arise when poor farmers have access to credit and technical know-how (Zambia), when poor farmers have such social safety nets as income support (Mexico) and when food aid is well targeted (Ethiopia).

The evidence strongly suggests that export growth and incoming foreign investment have reduced poverty everywhere from Mexico to India to Poland. Yet at the same time currency crises can cripple the poor. In Indonesia, poverty rates increased by at least 50 percent after the 1997 currency crisis in that country, and the poor in Mexico have yet to recover from the pummeling of the peso in 1995.

Without doubt, Harrison asserts, globalization produces both winners and losers among the poor. In Mexico, for example, small and medium corn growers saw their incomes halved in the 1990s, while larger corn growers prospered. In other countries, poor workers in exporting sectors or in sectors with foreign investment gained from trade and investment reforms, while poverty rates increased in previously protected areas that were exposed to import competition. Even within a country, a trade reform may hurt rural agricultural producers and benefit rural or urban consumers of those farmers' products.

The relationship between globalization and poverty is complex, Harrison acknowledges, yet she says that a number of persuasive conclusions may be drawn from the studies in Globalization and Poverty. One conclusion is that the relationship depends not just on trade or financial globalization but on the interaction of globalization with the rest of the economic environment: investments in human capital and infrastructure, promotion of credit and technical assistance to farmers, worthy institutions and governance, and macroeconomic stability, including flexible exchange rates. The existence of such conditions, Harrison writes, is emerging as a critical theme for multilateral institutions like the World Bank.

Harrison adds that more research is needed to identify whether labor legislation protects only the rights of those few workers who typically account for the formal sector in developing economies, or whether such legislation softens short-term adjustment costs and helps the labor force benefit from globalization. Anti-sweatshop activism suggests that selective interventions may be successful in this regard.

Harrison next notes that while many economists predicted that developing countries with great numbers of unskilled workers would benefit from globalization through increased demand for their unskilled-intensive goods, this view is too simple and often inconsistent with the facts. Cross-country studies document that globalization has been accompanied by increasing inequality within developing countries, suggesting an offset of some of the reductions in poverty.

Globalization and Poverty yields several implications. First, impediments to exports from developing countries worsen poverty in those countries. Second, careful targeting is necessary to address the poor in different countries who are likely to be hurt by globalization. Finally, the evidence suggests that relying on trade or foreign investment alone is not enough to alleviate poverty. The poor need education, improved infrastructure, access to credit and the ability to relocate out of contracting sectors into expanding ones to take advantage of trade reforms.

-- Matt Nesvisky

The Digest is not copyrighted and may be reproduced freely with appropriate attribution of source.
 
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