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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.