Photo credit: What Diana Did /


In 1976, Michael Harrington traveled to India, Kenya, and Tanzania to bear witness to global poverty. A prolific author with a prophetic bent, Harrington had risen to fame in 1962 with The Other America, a book that stunned readers with its searing exposé of poverty in the United States, caught the attention of President Kennedy and inspired policymakers in Washington, who invited Harrington to consult on President Johnson’s War on Poverty.

The Other America eventually sold more than a million copies and made Harrington, as the Village Voice pronounced, a “vital voice of conscience” on the American stage. Fifteen years later, in 1977, Harrington promoted a different war on poverty. In a new book, The Vast Majority: A Journey to the World’s Poor, he recounted his travels abroad. “In the nineteen hundred seventies,” he wrote, “the government and the people of the United States are turning their backs on the  wretched of the earth.” Poverty “in the globe’s South” had left “great masses of people . . . on the margin of human existence.”

Harrington’s shift in focus did not occur in a vacuum. In the 1970s, a growing concern in the United States with global poverty deflected attention from a failing war on domestic poverty and an unpopular war in Vietnam. High-school students went on antipoverty fundraising walkathons, the World Bank called for an end to “absolute poverty,” and Congress passed a “New Directions” mandate that aimed to nudge foreign assistance away from Cold War geopolitics and toward aid for the poor.

In the 1970s in particular, global antipoverty efforts moved to the center of international development projects, a focus that would be retained, if reformulated, during the more conservative 1980s. Over the course of two decades, development experts, policymakers, and international officials shifted their vision of economic assistance from the modernization projects funded in the 1960s to the microcredit programs that won acclaim in the 1980s. They moved away from large-scale industrial and infrastructure projects aimed at national economic growth and toward small-scale antipoverty projects aimed at individual enterprise.

Over the same period, these experts redirected antipoverty policies away from men and toward women. As programs and policies shifted from the macro level of the nation to the micro level of the individual, development advocates paid increasing attention to women’s everyday economic activities. Women, they believed, were the economic actors who could lift families and villages out of poverty. In the 1970s, while US conservatives branded impoverished Americans, and especially Black, women, as welfare cheats and irresponsible mothers, development advocates positioned impoverished women overseas as the deserving poor. In the 1980s, as faith in the market impinged on faith in the state, they reimagined poor women as the entrepreneurs who would borrow money, build their businesses, repay their debts, and leave poverty behind.

These global economic interventions were not seen as charity, as American welfare policies were often perceived, but as “development.” Economists described wealthier industrialized nations as “developed” and poorer nonindustrial nations as “underdeveloped,” “less developed,” and “developing.” They constructed theories and models to develop the undeveloped, and if they had influence, they persuaded policymakers to put their ideas into practice.

Development programs were (and are) a complicated mix of national self-interest, political power, international rivalry, transnational collaboration, technocratic faith, humanitarian ideals, and social justice commitments. In the United States, experts and policymakers expressed hopes that economic development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America would improve the living conditions of the poor and also expand markets for investment and trade, stabilize friendly regimes, and prevent communist revolution.

In the 1950s and 1960s, development experts had put their faith in multiple versions of “modernization.” They promoted schemes that supplied technology, building industry and infrastructure to boost the productivity of poorer nations. They experimented with crops and farming techniques to increase the output of food. They encouraged civic participation at the village level and insisted on population control to reduce the number of people who taxed the world’s resources.

The US government played a central role in devising and implementing these plans. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s modernization in its various guises came under fire, tainted by failures, corruption, coercive practices, and environmental damage, as well as corporate interests, authoritarian regimes, and Cold War military interventions.

Thus, in the 1970s, development experts reframed their work as antipoverty programs. They moved to the left, pushed by social democrats in Europe, socialists in the global South, and religious idealists, all of whom denounced poverty as evil and pointed to the inequities that kept nations and peoples impoverished. They rejected “trickle-down” theories that positioned national economic growth as the primary measure of success, and they called for a redistribution that would benefit the world’s poor.

It might seem surprising to point to the Left as a source of new ideas about international development in the 1970s. With hindsight, billowing debt in the global South, Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile, Margaret Thatcher’s ascent to power in the United Kingdom, and the growing clout of the Christian Right in the United States portended the coming conservative era. But in the 1970s, those trends and events, significant as they were, had not quashed the quest for change that fueled left and liberal attempts to address inequality. The radical ethos of the 1960s reached into the 1970s, with the spirit of social movements informing at least some facets of law and policy. On the international scene especially, socialism, anti-colonialism, economic redistribution, antipoverty, racial justice, and gender equity all had legs in the 1970s, and sometimes they entered and walked the halls of power.

That quest for change included calls to restructure international trade, to meet the basic needs of all the world’s citizens by the year 2000, and to levy global taxes to pay for a transfer of resources from the rich to the poor. It also came with a new twist in the politics of gender. In the 1950s and 1960s, development experts had shown minimal interest in women, except as excessive breeders who needed to curtail their reproduction or uneducated mothers who needed help in rearing their children. They offered technical advice, vocational training, and jobs primarily to men.

Over the course of the 1970s, they revised their views. An international “women in development” movement called for gender equity and saw impoverished women as potential earners. Its supporters pushed for programs to give women income-earning work beyond the piecemeal craft sales that some development plans already promoted. They asked for a fundamental reconsideration of who and what development entailed.

In the 1970s, left-leaning development advocates searched for politically palatable ways to win support for foreign aid. They wanted to disarm their critics on both the left and right, and they hoped that the moral inflection of the antipoverty cause would have greater public appeal than the technocratic monotone of modernization. In the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973, they codified their new approach with a legislative mandate to reorient foreign aid toward the poor and an amendment that required the inclusion of women.

But they also faced constraints, and sometimes battled their own half-hearted commitment. International and domestic politics, the stagnating American economy, and conservative opposition diluted and washed out the more ambitious anti-poverty proposals.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, liberals’ expectations were reduced but not relinquished. Some resisted the cooler political climate for social spending; others accommodated to it. For the most part, they retreated from their more radical calls for structural change in the international economy and large-scale transfer of resources from the wealthier to the poorer nations. They looked for funds to implement small-scale projects in cities and villages, and they ramped up their interest in women. Microcredit—with its tiny loans to the poor for building businesses— seemed to offer an antipoverty approach tailored for the new conservatism.

It was also tailored to a looming catastrophe in the global economy. Microcredit came to prominence in the same years that an international debt crisis devastated the economies of dozens of poorer nations. In other words, the notion that loans to poor people would alleviate poverty rose just when loans to poorer nations dragged them down toward bankruptcy.

But the two worked together, in a system that has since become known as neoliberalism. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund instituted structural adjustment policies that extended new loans to indebted nations only if they promised policy changes that would introduce free-market ideals and cut government spending. In a similar vein, microcredit provided loans to the poor in return for market-based activities and fiscal discipline in investing, borrowing, and saving.

With the rising interest in the smallest enterprises, and in conjunction with the global women’s movement, development experts devised microcredit programs that extended loans to indigent women. Women, they claimed, saved money, cared for their children, and repaid their loans, while men wasted their income on alcohol, tobacco, and prostitutes. Women, they now suggested, were better investments than men.

But in the field of development, nothing is wholly new. In some ways, the new generation of development experts added layers onto, rather than replacing, older programs and policies. They built on earlier programs aimed, for example, at rural productivity, women’s labor, and credit for farmers, and they reiterated and reanimated earlier demands for inclusion from the global South.

But in the 1970s, they also challenged what had become the conventional wisdom in their professional circles. Their repeated repudiation of trickle-down economics, their collective retreat from Cold War rhetoric, their insistent turn to development for the most impoverished, their specific plans to end the worst of poverty within a generation, and the high priority they came to place on increasing women’s income marked departures from the past. Equally important, these economic warriors understood themselves as game-changers who hoped to rewrite the rules of development for a new era.

The results were decidedly mixed.

In the United States, the attention to global poverty inspired some projects that helped the poor, including poor women, and others that floundered. By the end of the 1980s, US development officials were also seeking greater collaboration with experts and organizations from the global South, but they retained their commitment to US national interests. They cooperated selectively with those who knew how to court them, and they molded their programs to fit the changing political parameters of Washington as well as those of the wider world.

Along the way, the dream of global redistribution—the transfer of resources from the wealthy to the poor—was lost, and so was the goal of ending poverty by the turn of the century.

Joanne Meyerowitz is the Arthur Unobskey Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University.

Excerpted from A WAR ON GLOBAL POVERTY: The Lost Promise of Redistribution and the Rise of Microcredit by Joanne Meyerowitz. Copyright © 2021 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.