Posted in Poverty

Understanding Poverty

The world now understands poverty basically as a lack, or inadequacy, of:

  • Food security
  • Secure Shelter/ Address
  • Access to basic services
  • Sound Health
  • Education
  • Choice and Voice
  • Personal security

Not knowing where your next meal is coming from is termed as absolute poverty; and a paucity of basic necessities like shelter is known as relative poverty.

Globally, there has been an evolution of approaches to dealing with poverty, down the years:

1960s: Governments looked at macroeconomic criteria like GNP. In those halcyon days of optimism, it was believed that with redistributive justice, global poverty could be eradicated

1970s: With the quadrupling of oil prices after the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Vietnam war fiasco of 1975, all optimism went out the window, and governments were happy just to broaden the concept of income-poverty to a wider set of ‘basic needs’ and the lack of access to health, education and other services

1980s: Also called the lost decade of development, saw the emergence of ideas like sustainable development and the feminisation of poverty, and policy makers waxed poetic, adding powerlessness, isolation, and vulnerability to the poverty matrix

1990s: Saw the emergence of the capability approach, and the UNDP Human Development Reports focused not on what people do or do not have, but on what they can or cannot do .

The Human Development Index measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions:

  • A long and healthy life, as measured by life expectancy at birth
  • Knowledge and education, as measured by the adult literacy rate and the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary gross enrolment ratio
  • A decent standard of living, as measured by the natural logarithm of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP) in US$.

2000s: Through the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations set specific targets for countries to achieve, and have brought about noticeable reductions in poverty in many countries. These goals are:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Global partnership for developmentThe global scenario for poverty makes very depressing reading:

2010s: In the second decade of the new millennium, the chickens of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation are coming home to roost. Poverty did not reduce as much as expected, because countries were chasing economic growth and international trade at the cost of their obligations to the poor. In fact, during this decade, social divisions became more marked, compounded by the digital and knowledge divide, so evident in a country like India.

As a result, the current scenario looks rather depressing:

  • Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day
  • More than 80% of the world’s population lives in countries where income differentials are widening
  • The poorest 40% of the world’s population accounts for 5% of global income. The richest 20% accounts for three-quarters of world income
  • A conservative estimate for 2010 finds that at least a third of all private financial wealth, and nearly half of all offshore wealth, is now owned by world’s richest 91,000 people – just 0.001% of the world’s population. The next 51% of all wealth is owned by the next 8.4 million — just 0.14% of the world’s population.
  • For every $1 in aid a developing country receives, over $25 is spent on debt repayment.

The situation in a developing country like India, is no better:

  • India is estimated to have one third or 33% of the world’s poor. It is estimated that 8 Indian states have more poor people than 26 poorest African nations combined, which totals to more than 410 million poor in the poorest African countries.
  • The latest UNICEF data shows that one in three malnourished children worldwide, are found in India, whilst 42% of the nation’s children under five years of age, are underweight. It also shows that a total of 58% of children under five surveyed, were stunted.
  • The 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report places India amongst the three countries where the GHI between 1996 and 2011 went up from 22.9 to 23.7, while 78 out of the 81 developing countries studied, including Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Kenya, Nigeria, Myanmar, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Malawi, succeeded in improving hunger conditions.
  • An estimated 421 million of the poor are concentrated in eight North Indian and East Indian states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

There are many reasons for the endemic poverty in India, such as: pre-colonial and post-colonial exploitation; caste and gender discrimination; failure to develop secondary and tertiary sectors of the rural economy; lack of redistributive justice for the landless; poor physical infrastructure; low quality social infrastructure; a sluggish, low-capacity bureaucracy that tends to be reactive rather than proactive; and poor design and implementation of anti-poverty programmes like IRDP, JRY, NRY, SGSY, SJSRY, which are top-down, based on the axiom of ‘one-size-fits-all’ and fail because they do not take local socio-cultural variations into account.

Where local variations have been encouraged, they have achieved tremendous success – like the women’s self-help groups of Kudumbashree in Kerala. But then, women in Kerala have always wielded more economic and social power than anywhere else in India. Perhaps men’s workers’ collectives and thrift societies will be equally successful in the traditionally patriarchal northern States.

In my next post, I hope to look specifically at urban poverty and its many dimensions…


I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

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