Global Development Institute Blog

By Vegard Iversen, Anirudh Krishna and Kunal Sen

In spite of recent and unprecedented poverty reduction, the notion that an individual’s expected level of achievement should be ‘a function only of his effort and not of his circumstances’ remains a distant ideal. While research has added to our understanding of poverty dynamics and of policies to alleviate deprivation, most poverty escapes continue to be marginal and fragile.

When gauged, instead, as steps on a ‘rags to riches’ or social status ladder – and from one generation to the next – it becomes clear that moderate or large individual ascents and the drivers of such more notable achievements, are neither well documented nor particularly well understood.

Our recent working paper reviews the research on occupational, educational and income mobility in the Global South. We contend that traditions and methods developed for studying social mobility in the West are only partly useful for analysing progress, setbacks and the drivers of mobility in low-income settings. Lack of similar high-quality longitudinal data represents an important constraint. Sufficiently careful assessments of methodological strengths and limitations, informed by ground realities and patterns in data, have been wanting and has contributed to the often large spread in social mobility estimates. New methods and new data collection techniques consequently have considerable appeal.

The questions we engage with relate to the likelihood that the child of a manual labourer in India will rise to the position of a professional and to how his or her prospects compare with those of a manual labourer, say, in China or South Africa? Does within-country location or social identity matter for mobility prospects? How does mobility in developing countries today compare with historical prospects in countries that are now industrialised? Finally, what can be learnt from theory and how can policy be shaped to nurture talent and mitigate disparities in opportunities in low-income settings?

Economists and sociologists have predominantly studied industrial country settings, using large and rich data-sets that combine links across generations with in-depth information on earnings (income), education and occupational status. Intergenerational mobility, capturing offspring improvement compared to the parent generation, is at the centre of this literature.

Synthesising lessons from theory, from industrialised country research practice and evidence, and from the developing country research that we review, we propose an agenda for expanding and strengthening the quality of research on social mobility in the Global South.

Apart from engaging with measurement and estimation-related issues, we consider the causes or correlates of educational, occupational and income mobility. In doing so, we also point to the relative neglect of downward mobility, the reverse of upward mobility, a frequent occurrence with particularly grave connotations in many developing country contexts. In a companion paper that has just been published (see Economic and Political Weekly, 4 November 2017), which uses nationally representative data from India, we find that downward mobility risks appear to be considerably higher in rural locations and among minority background individuals. In a stylized comparison, we also find that downward mobility risks, high in India, are also high in China, despite its more extensive social protection programs, including the iron rice-bowl in the communist era.

This research points to the need for new methods, new data sources and more careful practice for studying social mobility in developing countries, in most of which inequality has increased alongside global integration. In addition, practical steps and policy innovation are necessary. Policymakers can learn from NGOs that find creative ways to give a leg up to young people from disadvantaged situations (Krishna and Agarwal, forthcoming).


Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.