Do the poor continue to be poor because we don’t understand poverty sufficiently? Indian vs. global economists’ perceptions

Chapal Mehra, The Hindu, December 10, 2013 | Read the full article here >>

[…] Arbitrary definitions of poverty determined by groups of economists, often employed by the government, who use numbers to obfuscate the poverty debate in India and elsewhere.

Every year, the government claims that the poverty numbers have fallen thanks to the hard work of these economists. According to whom — the poor? What allows a group of people to define poverty for a nation without consulting those that make up that category? We rarely ask the poor what poverty means to them and what change in lifestyle would make them poverty-free. Have Indian economists and the leaders ever wondered if the poor continue to be poor because we don’t understand poverty sufficiently? Or perhaps, the poor understand poverty too well?

The questions are sufficiently intriguing. The answers are harder to find. There is a poverty line in India and elsewhere, which tells us how we can measure poverty. The global poverty line for extreme poverty is $1.25 and for moderate poverty is $2. In India, until recently, we measured poverty in terms of calorific value. […]

A survey among the Indian or global poor on what poverty is would lead to a definition widely divergent from that of governments and economists. The poor, across India and the world, will probably be in concurrence. What does this tell us? That the business of poverty measurement is an extremely useful one. A poorly-created poverty measurement index easily misrepresents and often reduces the poverty in a society. In doing so, it decreases the responsibility of the privileged and the powerful to improve the condition of the less privileged.

It also misinforms the primary discourse in a society deeply wedded to the logic of measurement and numbers. Poverty, as the poor experience it, is a concept which has little or no resonance amongst any other class. In the long-term, such discourses fracture societies, eventually leading to unrest, inequality, internalised dissatisfaction and eventual conflict. The point to consider, then, is who should define poverty and why the poor should not lead this process? […]

There is a need to recognise that poverty is multi-dimensional. After all, despite rising above the poverty line, millions of Indians continue to lack access to safe water, sanitation, housing, nutrition, health and education. Unless we take into account what poverty means to the poor, measuring or reducing it will continue to remain a game of deliberate obfuscation. We can continue to measure poverty inadequately and pat ourselves on reducing extreme poverty year on year. Or we can have a more considered, nuanced and inclusive discussion on what poverty is. […]

(Chapal Mehra is Senior Director, Global Health Strategies Emerging Economies, New Delhi.)

Source: When the definition of poverty harms the poor – The Hindu
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