Can There Be a Universal Definition of Poverty?

Essay 2015 6 Pages

Ethnology / Cultural Anthropology


Can There Be a Universal Definition of Poverty?

Much effort in development is focused on the issue of poverty, how to address it and ultimately how to reduce and/or eliminate it. It is important to have a definition of poverty; however the issue goes deeper than that. How poverty is defined influences the manner in which it is addressed. Some have tried to define poverty simply in monetary terms. Others have argued that poverty is more than low income, but rather a deprivation of basic freedom and the capability to enjoy life. This article will discuss both approaches and will consider their limitations, before moving to a third approach; the multidimensional approach used by anthropologists. Poverty is a complex process stemming from historical and cultural factors and is deeply embedded in the social environment. By referring to ethnographic fieldwork, an overview will be given of the valuable contribution that this anthropological type of perspective has made, showing that poverty cannot have a universal definition.

The Monetary Approach

The World Bank defines poverty universally as people who are surviving on $1 per day or less (Narayan and Petesch, 2007). This classic poverty line approach differentiates between the poor and the non-poor using a monetary definition of poverty (Ravallion, 1998).

This idea is echoed in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to halve “...the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day,” This clearly promoted the idea that it would take economic growth in order to achieve it (Unwin, 2007). Much of the conversation and study of poverty has been heavily influenced by the agendas of the World Bank, MDG’s, and international development organisations (Escobar, 1995). This is an example of the importance of choosing the correct definition of an issue because what is measured will directly influence what policies are made and how they are implemented (Green, 2006).

However, setting a definitive poverty line has shortcomings if applied to all situations universally. For example, a person in Germany could be well below the culturally accepted and defined poverty level but not meet the criteria established by the UN development goals. Setting a dollar figure definition encourages a vision of the poor as a single homogeneous group whose primary problem is low income. This notion leads policymakers to seek ‘‘ the policy’’ that will increase the income of this easily defined group, without fully considering the dynamics that created their situation. (Hulme and Shepherd, 2003). It suggests poverty is a state and a neutral fact (Baulch and McCulloch, 1998). However, individuals from two villages in the Nalgonda district had simultaneously fell and escaped poverty over a twenty five year period (Krishna, 2004). This suggest poverty is a process one can also descent into.

Any poverty line is a fairly un-nuanced definition that fails to recognise the many differences between the poor, on one side of the line, and everyone else, on the other (Baulch and McCulloch, 1998). A frequent criticism is that it does not capture the complete experience of poverty (Francis 2006). A line ignores any of the historical and societal factors that have made a person, or even a place, poor.

This is demonstrated by Ferguson's (1990) work in Lesotho. The World Bank implied people from Lesotho were poor because they were ‘a traditional subsistent peasant society.’ This statement didn’t recognise the effect of the colonial land settlements and appropriations of the previous 100 years. Neither did it acknowledge that most Lesotho men were reserved labour in South African mines. These structures create poverty, but are not considered when using poverty lines as a definition.

By using MDG targets and other measures of consumption, organisations establish poverty as an entity without really considering what these categorisations may mean for the variety of people living in diverse cultural contexts. (Green, 2006; Escobar, 1995). This can result in programs that, although they may provide some income, they fail to change the unequal structure of social relations. In spite of these programs, people will still be trapped in poverty because the underlying macroeconomic conditions have not been addressed. (McCord, 2003).

Capabilities Approach

Another view is that poverty is not just a matter of low income, but rather a deprivation of basic capabilities. A primary benefit of this view is that it focuses on the ‘ends’ that make development important, and places less emphasis on some of the ‘means’ that may be a part of the process. (Sen, 1999). It allows the discussion to move beyond developing countries by recognising that you can be poor in a rich country. This viewpoint has influenced the World Bank, so that while a 1990 report showed poverty as a primarily monetary issue, a 2001 report addressed the impact poverty has on human capabilities.

The capabilities approach relies on the idea that the open market is a strong contributor to human freedom and development; it implies poverty results from a failure to integrate into the market economy (Hulme and Shepherd, 2003). However, doubt has been cast on this as the same market can be inherently exploitative and can actually restrict some collective human freedoms. The Rastafari believe that people are not trying to use the market to gain freedom, but rather they are ‘suffering’ collectively, hoping to be saved from the oppressive market system. (Shilliam, 2012).

Similarly, the market can be the cause of poverty (Hulme and Shepherd, 2003). When Hafeez was ill, the Bangladeshi market provided household security for his business. However, the market was also centrally responsible in the household’s downfall by providing expensive healthcare to Hafeez that did little for him, except impoverish his family (Hulme, 2004).

The capabilities approach fails as a universal definition of poverty on at least three counts. It focuses primarily on the market, while neglecting other social factors, and doesn’t adequately acknowledge that broader changes may be required.

Multidisciplinary Approach

The use of quantitative methodologies and indices as a way to address and measure poverty has taken attention away from the social relations which produce poverty (Green, 2006). Poverty reduction policies have a far better likelihood of succeeding if attempts are made to discover how poor people themselves perceive their poverty and to discover what they feel as an improvement from their current situation (Epstein, 2004).

Because of these shortcomings, a third approach has been recognised which suggests poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon, deeply embedded socially in complex and varied ways (Booth, 2006; Narayan et al, 2000). This allows a subjective discussion of what being poor means and the participatory methods are more interactive with the people affected by poverty (Chambers 1983, Kothari and Minogue, 2002).

A multidisciplinary approach allows for a variety of sources and causes to be part of the process of falling into, and remaining in, poverty, and it also recognises that it is natural for some people to have a different idea of what poverty means than others. This can be seen at work, both between countries, as well as within a given country (Booth, 2006; Ravallion, 2003).

Social factors

Anthropologists prioritise what poor means for individuals, rather than what is predefined. For example, in some savanna and pastoralist societies in East Africa, a lack of livestock is commonly considered the definition of poverty. Even though they are nomadic, the herdsmen are recognised as wealthier than those who farm and forage (Broch-Due, 1995). Similarly, when Epstein (2004) spoke to people in India about their circumstances, they reported that they felt worse off than thirty years ago because they couldn’t afford to celebrate their children’s weddings, and having to forego other cultural rituals that had previously been possible. These descriptions of poverty are greatly differ to conventional definitions.

Generational differences can also affect the perception of poverty. In Tanzania, older people feel that not having someone to eat with indicates poorness, but younger folk describe the poor as those without access to education (Tierney, 1992)

Prestige is another factor, often overlooked. The image the poor have of themselves may be different to what outsiders think (Epstein, 2004). Krishna (2004) found social recognition mattered as much as economic conditions when people described poverty in their cultural context. For instance, in Gujarat, fixing a leaky roof is a significant item in terms of status and recognition even though it is a fairly modest expense. Only poor people have leaky roofs and much of their definition of “poor” is centred on unmet physical needs and low social recognition.

Furthermore, Epstein (2004) illustrates the importance of understanding complex social hierarchies and status distinctions. In India, a sorghum-based diet identified the poorest people who resented that the better-off villagers ate rice. Although rice was more costly, it was actually less nutritious than sorghum. Once awareness was raised in the better off families about its advantages, the wealthier households began eating sorghum. The social stigma was removed and the poor were willing to return a sorghum diet.

In summary; social factors include the ability to participate in traditions and customs, the perceptions of different generations, and the prestige that is given to everything from the type of food eaten to the appearance of material possessions and all of these play into the perception of poverty.

Historical factors

There is a need to recognise the historical processes that have created poverty in some areas. In Botswana, people were forced to rely on low wages due to land reform restricting rights. Others were forced to depend on meagre state handouts. This is an example of how being obligated to integrate into a contemporary state had a direct consequence in creating destitution (Green 2000; Good, 1999).

Puerto Rican poverty also benefits from a historical lens (Bourgois, 2003). Their economic situation is less affected by Puerto Rican culture and attitudes, than it is by the cheap labour practices within Manhattan and unprotected industrial labour practices in Puerto Rico.

The Anthropological Approach

This perspective on poverty and inequality can give a holistic understanding on how particular groups come to be defined as poor and how poverty is perceived and experienced (Green, 2006; Booth, 2006). Anthropological researchers perceive poverty as a consequence of relationships between people, meaning that it is not an absolute state, but rather a process (Sahlins, 1972).

This can leads to better formation and implementation of policies aimed to reduce poverty, so that the miners of Lesotho aren’t subject to the same programs as Puerto Ricans in New York. It recognises that people care more about their neighbour’s watertight roof, or what they’re able to eat, rather than how much savings they have. Celebrating life’s special moments with friends may be considered equally valuable to a good education. It goes beyond the arbitrary poverty line established by the World Bank and looks at the cultural context of the people concerned (Chen and Ravallion, 2008).

To best accomplish this, methodologies will need to go beyond brief visits and questionnaire surveys that in the past have left many of the poor unrepresented (Epstein, 2004; Unwin, 2004). It can only be accurate by listening carefully to how people perceive their own poverty. It is necessary to have a different diagnosis of developmental needs which is regionally and locally controlled (Krishna 2004; Unwin, 2004).


Poverty does not exist in a vacuum and does not have a single universal definition. The definitions that are provided and the measurements that are promoted give poverty a particular set of meanings and connotations. Poverty line descriptions are only a start and don’t fully cover the topic. An over-emphasis on the market and its ability to empower people to rise above is also inadequate. The best research on poverty will incorporate historical, cultural, and social factors to provide a well balanced viewpoint.

Anthropology shows the importance of recognising the processes that have created poverty and the relationships that people have with the structures around them. This information will enable the best identification of appropriate responses in both policy and practice (Hulme and Shephard, 2003).


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Title: Can There Be a Universal Definition of Poverty?