HLPF Side Event Considers How to Define Poverty with Those Left Furthest Behind
UN Photo/Evan Schneider
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The HLPF side event titled, ‘How to Define Poverty with Those Left Furthest Behind,’ identified lack of education, health and living standards as non-financial dimensions of poverty, noting that each can be both a cause and consequence.

Jeffrey Sachs offered three meanings of poverty, focusing on households’ ability to meet their needs, participate in society and lead dignified lives.

Local perspectives and data to measure poverty’s multiple dimensions emerged as being key to developing robust poverty eradication solutions.

9 July 2018: Discussants at a side event on the theme, ‘How to Define Poverty with Those Left Furthest Behind’ presented on key aspects of poverty that go beyond financial measures. Organized by ATD Fourth World and the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), Oxford University and the Permanent Missions of Ecuador and France to the UN, the event highlighted research on causes and consequences of poverty, considering elements such as education, health, data and participatory governance to improve policymaking.

Moderator Jean-Paul Moatti, IRD, kicked off the discussion by stating that, according to the World Bank definition of extreme poverty, there are no poor people in his hometown in France. Noting that such a statement is a miscategorization, he stressed the multidimensional nature of poverty. Citing a project by researchers from Oxford and ATD Fourth World, Moatti underscored the need to involve those who are impacted. He also raised the issue of connecting SDG 1 (no poverty) to SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), both across and within countries.

Opening remarks by Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University and Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), focused on the need for better metrics to measure poverty. He lamented that, despite poverty reduction featuring as a key pillar of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework and pre-dating the SDGs, metrics on poverty need to be more up to date. Sachs offered three meanings of poverty: 1) absolute, or extreme, poverty, where people lack the material basis for staying alive; 2) where a household or individual is deprived, or is not sufficiently able to participate in society; and 3) where people are unable to live dignified lives.

Someone could have an income well above US$1.90 per day, but remain at high risk of dying due to a curable illness, drought or flood, said Jeffrey Sachs.

Sachs emphasized that each measure is relative, noting that someone could have an income well above US$1.90 per day, but remain at high risk of dying due to a curable illness, drought or flood. He cited the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measure of whether a household is below half the median income as giving a better idea of the extent to which people can succeed. Recognizing that more subjective measures of poverty may be difficult to measure, Sachs noted proxies for whether people feel dignified or perceive that they have control over their lives. He referenced SDG 3 (good health and well-being), flagging rising substance abuse and suicide in the US, indicative of the third measure of poverty above.

Ambassador Helena Yánez Loza, Deputy Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the UN, gave examples of measures her country has taken to reduce both poverty and inequality. She highlighted that poverty due to unsatisfied basic needs can be represented in five components: 1) housing quality; 2) overcrowding; 3) access to basic services; 4) access to education; and 5) economic capacity. She also drew attention to Ecuador’s national-level performance on the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which, at just under 17%, reflects a 10% reduction compared to 2009 figures.

Robert Walker, Oxford University, outlined three dimensions of poverty: education, health and living standards, asking whether one dimension can impact on or compensate for another. He articulated six steps in the research for a project undertaken with ATD Fourth World, echoing Jeffrey Sachs’s point on the importance of including those who experience poverty in research efforts, rather than limiting engagement to academics and practitioners. Doing so, Walker noted, can reframe our conception of poverty, shifting understanding from simply absence of material things to a broader recognition of peoples’ suffering.

Walker noted that, although the research is ongoing, poverty is also frequently coupled with negative impacts on physical or mental health, and is relational. At group level, poverty can be experienced as an absence of rights or opportunities, or as being inherently different or excluded from the rest of society. At the individual level, Walker said, poverty can mean social isolation, stigmatization or discrimination, offering as an example the idea that “you, as a poor person, cannot be trusted with money.” He also noted that the survival and organizational skills associated with poverty are often hidden as “they do not go on a CV.” Walker concluded by re-emphasizing that poverty is multidimensional, and that because there are no adequate measurements for the multiple dimensions, one can only attain a partial understanding of the nature of poverty. Thus, he closed, current policies and efforts to eradicate poverty are less likely to be effective.

Javier Herrera, IRD, summarized lessons learned from the NoPoor project, which collects empirical evidence on poverty from 21 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The findings, Herrera outlined, demonstrate missing dimensions of poverty including: capacity to aspire; vulnerability; and non-market dimensions such as human rights and governance. Seconding the previous speakers, he noted a need to understand interactions across the various dimensions of poverty. Herrera concluded by stating that who is actually defining the needs of the poor is central to research on poverty. He argued that certain development programmes imply that decision makers know better than poor people themselves what they need, flagging that what they really lack are the opportunities and institutional frameworks to escape poverty.

Following the keynotes, three roundtable speakers gave reflections based on their experiences.

Maryann Broxton, ATD Fourth World USA, emphasized that poverty is a lived experience, and that when one talks about dimensions of poverty, they often talk about cause and consequence. The difficulty with measuring these, she noted, is that, with the exception of subjugation and systematic oppression, almost anything can be construed as both a cause and a consequence.

Milorad Kovacevic, UN Development Programme (UNDP), outlined the history of measuring human development and the multiple dimensions of poverty. He underscored that although measurements are imperfect, the dimensions used by the MPI provide information that points policymakers in the right direction. Kovacevic pointed to a lack of consensus on which dimensions should be measured and a deficit of comparable data as hindering measurement efforts. He noted reliance on multiple indicator cluster surveys (MICS) and demographic and health surveys (DHS), flagging that neither was initially intended to measure poverty in whole populations.

Claire Melamed, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, spoke to what happens after data are collected and turned into a dashboard or an index, and how data can be turned into action. She noted that issues on data are centrally about demand and supply, connecting those concerned with collecting or analyzing data with the users, often those in government or responsible for devising policies. Melamed highlighted the participatory nature of data, recalling that data collected from the MyWorld survey informed the content of the SDGs themselves. She outlined three items to address moving forward: increased accuracy and reliability of data; timely data to inform, and make compelling cases for, interventions; and inclusion of data in the policymaking process, which, she noted, is often assumed, but not guaranteed.

Peter Messerlie, Co-chair of the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) Expert Group, closed the event by offering one observation and posing questions for further consideration. He described transformation as being intentional and requiring consensus, which demands getting down to the local level. He re-iterated the importance of identifying the linkages and interactions between poverty, inequality and health, and determining whether these are reinforcing or cancelling. These underpin a fundamental question that the event sought to address: how do we move from understanding the problem to finding the solution? [How to Define Poverty with Those Left Furthest Behind: Event Webpage] [Event Livestream] [ATD Fourth World Webpage on Multidimensional Aspects of Poverty] [ATD Webpage on Measuring Poverty]

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