Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Two Poverty Enlightenments Historical Insights from Digitized Books Spanning Three Centuries by Martin Ravallion

World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5549

Word searches of Google’s library of digitized
books suggest that there have been two “Poverty
Enlightenments” since 1700, one near the end of
the 18th century and the second near the end of the
20th. The historical literature suggests that only the
second came with a widespread belief that poverty
could and should be eliminated. After the first Poverty
Enlightenment, references to “poverty” (as a percentage
of all words) were on a trend decline until 1960, after
which there was a striking resurgence of interest, which
came with rising attention to economics and more
frequent references to both general and specific policies
relevant to poverty. Developing countries also became
more prominent in the literature. Both Enlightenments
came with greater attention to human rights. The
written record reflects the push-back against government
intervention and the retreat from leftist economics and
politics since the late 1970s. Although many debates
from 200 years ago continue today, there is little sign that
the modern revival of the classical 19th century views on
the limitations of government has come with a revival of
the complacency about poverty that was common early in
that century.

This paper is a product of the Director’s Office, Development Research Group. It is part of a larger effort by the World Bank to provide open access to its research and make a contribution to development policy discussions around the world. Policy Research Working Papers are also posted on the Web at The author may be contacted at

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