Breaking The Poverty Cycle


Susan Pick and Jenna T. Sirkin, Breaking The Poverty Cycle
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, 336 pages, ISBN: 978-0195383164
Reviewed by: Cheryl Hiu-Kwan Chui and Cecilia Lai Wan Chan, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Book Review Published: 28 November 2017

Reviewed by: Cheryl Hiu-Kwan Chui and Cecilia Lai Wan Chan, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Breaking The Poverty Cycle uses an agent-oriented approach toward development in addressing barriers toward positive individual and community development. The authors use examples from the Mexican NGO Mexican Institute of Family and Population Research (IMIFAP) to illustrate how psychosocial growth made on the personal level can be translated into wider community and societal changes.

The book is divided into three sections: The first section begins by introducing existing development paradigms, and examines how sociocultural norms can be both barriers to and facilitators of personal and community development. IMIFAP programs are introduced as a case study to illustrate the importance of individual agency and participation in community development. The outcomes of IMIFAP programs formed the basis upon which the Framework for Enabling Empowerment (FrEE) was formulated. This section concludes with a description of how FrEE might be translated into practice.

The second section of the book addresses sustainable human development, and illustrates how FrEE operationalized Sen’s capability approach. The section then proceeds to examine how the needs for individuals to reduce psychological barriers, and to enhance their skills, knowledge and competencies can be achieved through participatory and reflective methodology, as well as repeated behavioural success. This section concludes by outlining specific individual barriers to agency in various domains.

The final section of the book puts forth practical implications for future development practice, policymaking, and research using the FrEE framework.

Overall, this book provides a very rich and contextualized examination of how FrEE can be used as a framework for implementing strategies and programs that expand human agency and freedoms in development contexts. The strengths of this book are the authors’ obvious deep commitment toward empowering disadvantaged individuals in developing contexts, and the ability for the authors to systematically capture the changes observed in individuals prior to, and after interventions. Conceptually, it brings to light the importance of incorporating elements of social psychology into foray of international development. By expanding Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach, the authors argue that that an individual’s intrinsic empowerment is just as, if not more important than external factors for positive growth and changes to occur. Distinct from traditional development strategies including aid programs, and “paternalistic government policies”, FrEE situates individuals as active change agents, rather than passive recipients and products of the development process. Drawing from social psychology and ecological theories of human behaviour, the authors argue that changes in communities begin with the changes in the individual in terms of one’s analytic thinking, problem solving, decision making, and assertiveness skills, which in turn may lead to new behaviours that impact attitudes and norms of the communities as a whole.

Throughout the book, testimonies and vivid life stories from IMIFAP program participants are used to document personal psychosocial changes, both anticipated and unexpected ones, and show how shifting in one’s beliefs about the self can change behaviours. Although acknowledging the reciprocal, interactive relations between context and personal agency, a sharp distinction can be made between extrinsic empowerment, usually in the form of materially-driven motivation and intrinsic empowerment, an awakening of some sort within the self that leads to increased self-efficacy, autonomy, control, and initiation. In this light, the authors contend that sustainable societal development is not exclusively a matter of external economic factors, but a psychological one. Throughout the book, these broad themes are explored from a range of perspectives, with examples and illustrations drawn from IMIFAP programs in the Latin American context, and with reference to personal and social circumstances of individuals.

One limitation of the book is perhaps the authors’ suggestion that sociocultural norms often inhibit the individual to realize their potential due to pressure and expectations to conform. Curiously, they do not attempt to address the complex and dynamic relationship between culture/tradition and development. In describing how sociocultural norms revolving around gender, parent-child relations, and family values may inhibit personal growth, we question whether there is no merit in a society where the collective is emphasized over the individual, and where family-oriented decision-making is preferred over self-determination? Obviously, psychological barriers resulting from these norms including shame, guilt, and fear can be detrimental. For instance, stigma associated with sex and sexuality may prevent women from accessing contraceptives, and most would concede that individual-based empowerment is key to development. Yet we must also acknowledge our own prejudices in championing the individual above all else, which is very much informed by the Western liberal sense of the ‘self’. Herein raises a question as to whether culture itself can be blamed for ‘underdevelopment’. Are there instances where traditional norms and institutions can be utilized for positive development? We should think so.

Nevertheless, Breaking The Poverty Cycle is not only conceptually important, it also gives practical examples of how to operationalize the FrEE framework via decision-making, communication, negotiation, self-knowledge, identifying and managing emotions, empathy and perspective-taking, and communication. Development practitioners will benefit well from the practical tools offered throughout the book as they are applicable to development programs worldwide. Central to note is the personal psychological component in the development process and the importance of participatory approach toward decision and policymaking processes.

Dr. Chui has an interdisciplinary background in international development and east-Asian studies. Her research focuses on the intersection between social policies, third sector, and family well-being. She is also a co-investigator on government-commissioned projects.
Prof. Chan is a world leader in health and social work. She is expert in integrative social work, health and mental health social work, eastern integrative empowerment intervention and outcome research.