What’s Wrong with Existing Poverty Measurement?

Many existing ways of measuring poverty are flawed.  They rely on weak conceptual foundations, are difficult to compare over time and across context, are rarely justified, and don’t reflect the interests and perspectives of poor people.

The World Bank’s International Poverty Line measures consumption expenditure, and currently stands at $US 1.25 in 2005 purchasing power parity.  In other words, the International Poverty Line is supposed to be the value of local currency that has the equivalent purchasing power that $US 1.25 had in 2005. 

Most national poverty lines are also measured in terms of income or consumption, and tend to be based either on the cost of acquiring a certain number of calories or the cost of acquiring a larger basket of goods, such as calories plus some allowance for non-food items.

Local governments and non-government organizations also use unique measures of poverty, in particular to assess the impacts of policies or projects.  Participatory Poverty Assessments are now common practice in development.  Researchers work with local communities to define and assess poverty on their own terms.  However, such assessments are rarely scaled up for use in making comparisons of deprivation across different contexts or over extended periods of time.

Gender: Existing measures of poverty are purportedly gender neutral, but actually mask the gendered distribution of deprivation.  By taking the household as the unit of analysis, most poverty measurement ignores the intra-household distribution of resources.  Yet the distribution of resources, assets and opportunities within the household is often unequal, and that the household is an important site of gender inequality across cultures and socio-economic circumstances. 

Furthermore, standards for evaluating deprivation can themselves be gendered.  Even if two individuals are, for example, consuming the same amount of goods measured in market prices, this may not be reflective of equivalent levels of deprivation.  One individual may have greater needs for certain goods (such as calories, on account of different workloads of metabolic rates) or services (such as sanitation, for women who are menstruating) which are not reflected by measuring their equal levels of consumption.  Some dimensions of deprivation, such as violence and time-use, are deeply gendered and their absence from current measurement practices obscures unjust distributions of burden and fear.

Using a gendered lens will also allow us to reflect on a variety of other features of individuals that arguably should influence poverty measurement.  For example, sensitivity to the gendered nature of need may also reveal how other factors such as age and disability influence how one’s deprivations ought to be measured.   

Perspectives of Poor People: Most poverty measurement does not take account of the interests and perspectives of poor people, who know the most about what it is that makes one poor and what it would take to be out of poverty.  Poverty lines therefore reflect the deprivations that bureaucrats or policy makers select rather than the deprivations that poor people actually experience.

Justification: Most poverty lines are not sufficiently justified.  Justification requires providing reasons that one should accept a certain measure of poverty.  Many poverty measures stipulate that poverty should be measured in a certain way, without giving good reasons to think that it is a justified or morally plausible way of measuring poverty.  For example, the World Bank’s International Poverty Line is supposed to be an average of the poverty lines in a representative set of poor countries.  But why is this average a good way to set the global standard, especially when each individual country used in the average may have a different underlying conception for its poverty line?

Comparability: The leading global measure of poverty is inherently flawed because it is incapable of making meaningful and reliable comparisons across context or over time.  The International Poverty Line relies on price comparisons that are calculated using the costs of all goods, rather than the cost of the basket of goods that are consumed by poor people. The International Poverty Line also relies heavily on the selection of the baseline year for determining purchasing power parity, and this arbitrary selection deeply affects the poverty line in local currencies.

Conceptual Weakness: Weak conceptual foundations underlie many poverty measures.  For example, the International Poverty Line only measures the prices of goods consumed (or, alternatively, the value of income) for a family without reference to an underlying basket of goods needed for poverty avoidance.  Arguably, a more plausible way of measuring poverty would explicitly identify those things, material or otherwise, that are needed to avoid poverty.

What will this project add?

There are four distinguishing features of this project that should substantially advance the measurement of poverty and gender equity for the worst off.

Gender: We will pay specific attention to how gender, for both men and women in different age groups and social locations, shapes an individual's likelihood of being deprived, their experience of deprivation, and the consequences of that deprivation.  Gendered analysis of poverty can illuminate dimensions of poverty that have previously received little attention, such as deprivations of time-use or physical security. Importantly, gendered analysis encourages the interrogation of the intra-household distribution of resources.

Perspectives of Poor People: We will explicitly consider the input of poor men and women.  Most poverty measures have been developed by ‘experts’ in government or international financial institutions without input from people who actually live with poverty.  Poor men and women know the most about what poverty is (and thus how it should be defined from their perspective), what it is like to be in poverty, and what it would take to be out of poverty.  

Justification: The project will explicitly examine the justification for poverty measures.  We will pay particular attention to why some dimensions of deprivation, levels of deprivation, and means of measurement should be used rather than others.  These efforts will also critically examine the values that should inform the measurement of poverty.  

Comparability: We will focus on developing a measure that is comparable across context and over time. This will allow for comparative assessments of individuals and communities, which can help inform policy-making and the allocation of scarce resources.      

How will the project proceed?

The first phase of fieldwork seeks to use a variety of participatory methods (including focus group discussions, individual interviews, life ladders, and household mapping exercises) to identify how poor people think of poverty, and how it is gendered for them. 

Following the first phase of fieldwork, both researchers and project investigators and staff will engage in rigorous analysis of the findings, identifying key themes that emerge, and questions for further investigation.

The second phase of fieldwork (contingent on the results and analysis of the first phase of fieldwork) will focus on systematically evaluating the relative importance, to poor men and women, of a variety of deprivations.  Building on the first phase of research, in which dimensions of poverty are identified and their gendered nature explored, the second phase may ask poor men and women to rank the relative importance of different deprivations identified in the first phase, and the possible ways of measuring those deprivations.

Professional researchers with extensive participatory research experience, in coordination with local NGOs, will carry out these two phases of the fieldwork, and be directly involved in analysis.

Following the second phase of fieldwork and analysis, we will develop a new, justifiable, gender-sensitive method of measuring poverty.  With this new measure, we will return to the field for a third phase of fieldwork.  In this phase, we hope to determine whether the new measure is practically applicable, reflective of the interests and perspectives of poor people, and capable of revealing previously obscured gendered dimensions of deprivation.  We will do this by actually testing the proposed measure in specific poor communities, and soliciting feedback on whether poor men and women think it correctly identifies their level of deprivation.

What input will poor men and women have?

Fieldwork will occur in 6 countries, in over 15 sites, with 60-120 participants per site in the first phase.  In focus group discussions, individual interviews, and several mapping and ranking exercises, participants will have the opportunity to articulate how they view poverty, and which deprivations are most important to them.  Subsequent phases will likely have larger numbers of participants.

The fieldwork is the most important component of the broader project.  While it is of course foreseeable that individual poor people will not all agree on what poverty is or how it is gendered, and people in different contexts will identify various deprivations that are more or less important for poverty measurement, we anticipate that key insights on gender and poverty will emerge from these participatory processes.  The views of poor men and women will carry great weight, and when there is disagreement among participants or between participants and researchers, we will make this disagreement transparent.

Who will participate?

We hope to include the voices of a diverse group of people among poor men and women.  Participants will come from a variety of ages and backgrounds.  We will work with young adults, adults, and elderly individuals.  We will work in communities that represent diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, some urban, some rural.  We hope to include participants from a variety of social locations, including mothers and fathers, single parents, widows, those who are employed and unemployed, those with strong familial and social networks and those without.  Though we can’t include everyone, we hope to include a wide range of people that can provide insight into poverty, gender, and measurement.

Young children will not be participants in the research.

How will the research be disseminated?

Once the fieldwork has been completed and the data analysed, it will be provided back to the communities and participants who gave their time and support to the research.  The analysis of the research, in particular the final project report, will be made publicly available on this site and through conferences, academic journals, etc.

What are the ethical standards of the research?

The research will be conducted according to the highest ethical standards, consistent with the requirements of Australian National University and all relevant local and national bodies.  An Ethics Protocol for the project has been approved by Australian National University, and is available upon request.

Individuals and communities will choose whether or not they participate in the research.  A participant can leave at any time.  A participant may refuse to answer any question or participate in any particular exercise.  Photographs will only be taken with explicit informed consent of participants.  

Who is funding the project?

The project is funded by an Australian Research Council linkage grant, with additional financial and in-kind contributions from the International Women’s Development Agency, Oxfam Great Britain Southern Africa Office, the Philippines Health Social Science Association, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Oxfam America.

The cash contributions to the project total A$1.5 million over the life of the project, with additional in-kind contributions of A$800,000.