31 Oct

Yes UNDP, ‘Poverty isn’t permanent’ but development is

Celebrating 25 years of learning what human (well)being is.

October 17 is International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. This is the day officially dedicated to raising awareness about poverty and international efforts to combat it.

This year, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) chose ‘Poverty isn’t permanent’ as its key message.  UNDP argue that despite popular misconceptions, extreme economic poverty is decreasing not increasing. To illustrate this, they use data which shows the decreasing proportion of people living on less than USD 1.90 a day between 1999 and 2013.

When we try to convince the public that poverty isn’t permanent, we provide certainty of progress (the outcome) by guaranteeing that our efforts (process) will lead to this outcome. The difficulty is, we have clarity about what it is we want to achieve but we do not have certainty that what we intend to do will absolutely lead to the change we want.

So we highlight examples where we have been able to follow a process that led to the intended outcome. In this case, UNDP has chosen the case of absolute decrease in the proportion of people living in extreme economic poverty. However, people can also find other examples of poverty which have increased within the given period.

Instead of communicating this, we should communicate the important progress we have made in our understanding of development and how this has shaped our knowledge of and approaches to human (well)being. I have outlined three crucial breakthroughs below:

  1. There are multiple definitions of progress in addition to ‘eradication’ of poverty

The fundamental aim of international development is to create a world where poverty does not exist. In this sense, the eradication of poverty is the reason why this sector exists. However, our vision of a world without poverty has expanded because our definition of poverty has also expanded.

We know that poverty can be an objective and subjective reality. We know that there can be relative poverty (inequality) as well as absolute poverty (extreme poverty). We also know that the metrics of poverty go well beyond economic or material forms of measurement.

Although UNDP use the metric of extreme economic poverty to show that poverty has decreased, their implicit definition of progress in their message is empowerment; the belief in one’s capability and capacity to leave a state of poverty. They use five case studies demonstrating people who have transformed their circumstances through entrepreneurship or employment.

In addition to eradication and empowerment, we have expanded our definitions of development, including equity, equality and efficiency.

  1. Issues come in systems

Another learning which we have gained is that issues come in systems. Instead of having a problem-cause-solution approach to tackling issues, systems change focuses on relationships. These relationships include the relationship between issues, the relationship between each actor and their contribution to the problem/solution and the power relationships between actors. Systems change interventions are more complex and require longer-term investments, a risk which several actors in the philanthropy sector are ready to embrace.

  1. Our understanding of the issue constantly evolves

A final learning is that our perception of the issues we tackle constantly evolve. An example I frequently refer to, is the sector’s progress on education.

During the Millennium Development Goals, we defined progress in education as the number of children with access to primary education. However, we realised that access is not enough and the quality of education significantly impacts development outcomes. In the Sustainable Development Goals, progress in education is defined by the quality of education and its contribution to life-long learning outcomes.

The latest World Development Report by World Bank (WDR) evaluates education and its contribution to development. One of the key messages is that education is distinctly characterised by two concepts – learning and schooling. Schooling is the amount of time spent in formal education and learning results from the skills gained in education. The report argues that the real signifier of development outcomes is not schooling but rather learning. The implications for this is that the amount of years spent in schooling does not necessarily correlate with the quality of learning. Therefore, we should develop better indicators to measure learning and its contribution to development.

Another recent discovery in education is the significance of non-cognitive skills in development outcomes. Studies such as this one demonstrate the impact of two-generation approaches (parent and child)  in boosting child education completion rates and this study on the impact of racialised positive bias in schools demonstrate that there is more to the picture than test scores.

UNDP challenges the reader to ‘change three people’s minds about poverty.’ Here’s my attempt. We can achieve progress in one metric, but the evolving process of development will undoubtedly reveal another metric we did not know before.

Simply focusing on one metric to prove that there is progress undermines the real progress which is our growing understanding of what the human condition really needs to be alive and dare I say, thrive.

So yes, poverty isn’t permanent, but development is – and this is something worth celebrating.

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5 comment on “Yes UNDP, ‘Poverty isn’t permanent’ but development is

  • As much as we are trying by all means to alleviate poverty in our regions and countries,the levels of poverty still remain high.I can give an example of my own country Zambia, where the poverty level stands at 70%. The most affected are people from rural and peri-urban areas,where people just rely on a single meal or two per day.Poverty is on different levels and needs to be looked at from all angles.Yes,this is a development issue that needs concerted efforts.

    William Banda
    Programs Manager
    Green Earth Zambia
    A member of Zambia Alliance Against Hunger and Malnutrition.

  • mine is not about comment but would like to solicit for assistance, support, guidance and mentoring.
    I’m a Ph.D candidate interested in a topic relating to sustainable agricultural practices in Nigeria.

    • Hello Olarewaju,

      How are you? Thank you for your message. What kind of guidance/mentoring are you looking for? I may not be the right person to ask but if you give me more clarity, I can reach out to suitable contacts.

      All the best,


  • Once again, we seem to be uggling the three notions, poverty, progress and development while a little more hopeful term seem to make its shy entrance onto the scene, viz., well-being. Very briefly, I think we would be wise to use human well-being as our point of departure. Then, it would be reasonable to say that one’s sense of well-being depends on one’s quality of life as one and not the international bodies, perceive it.

    Therefore, reasonable development would be concerned with enabling the people to enhance their quality of life without harming the others and our environment and experience a sense of well-being, or contentment if you will.

    One’s quality of life depends on the adequacy with which one is able to satisfy six fundamental needs common to all mankind. However, how they are satisfied varies from culture to culture. Those needs are nutrition, health, education and security in their inclusive sense, procreation and a set of non-material needs. The last is so called because their satisfaction does not entail any material gain. Aesthetic enjoyment, games and sports, etc., are some ways of satisfying them.
    Poverty then can be seen as one’s inability to adequately satisfy anyone or more of our fundamental needs. As implied, their satisfaction can only be undertaken with reference to the cultural norms to which one consciously or unconsciously subscribe. This is an epistemological fact, and as such not open to debate.

    Development then is concerned with enabling more and more people to adequately satisfy their fundamental needs as described above, and progress would represent to the extent to which this has been achieved. It will be seen that this approach is holistic and inclusive. Not only does it include the ‘poor of the development banks’, but also the ‘culture deprived’ affluen people of yuppi ilk everywhere. Moreover, it excludes the few still extent ‘financially poor’ living in some rural areas whose quality of life can be higher than that of some urban middle class citizens. Unfortunately, their numbers are dwindling rapidly, particularly in some parts of Southern Europe.

    I have written more fully about this non-reductive approach to progress and elsewhere, so I shall not say more about it here. Of course, my appproach differs from all traditional ones, and I am not sanguine about its chances among the professional development workers and the experts. No matter, let me conclude with pointing out while our current economic activities threaten life on earth by its injurious effects on our environment, its prime over, promotion of consumerism to generate legally unlimited gain by competition will result in loosers galore. The irony is, the experts are keen to foist on everybody a method that would inevitably create loosers while development experts advocate its use to help the poor, i.e., the loosers it has created! It is pathetic and awful, but it seems the old gods knew everything, but the experts know better.


    Lal M.

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