World Bank Voices, 13 January 2024:

Poverty is multidimensional. If we think of classical thinkers, Adam Smith referred to the basis of self-respect and the importance of being able to “appear in public without shame,” while John Rawls wrote about “primary goods,” which included rights and liberties as well as income and wealth. Amartya Sen, advancing in formalization, brought the notion of “functionings” as the “beings and doings” effectively available to people in their capability set, so they can “pursue the life plans they have reasons to value.”

It is mainstream today to argue that poverty is multidimensional, moving beyond just access to goods and services . But exploring which dimensions are “appropriate” in each context has been a fundamental pursuit of development analysts and practitioners in recent decades.

It has been almost 30 years since Sabina Alkire devoted her work to the understanding, classification, and measurement of the many dimensions of poverty, particularly those that are “hidden” in our concepts and indicators. Indeed, there are some dimensions associated with experiencing the condition of poverty that cannot be so easily observed and have not been properly measured yet are very important when it comes to policy effectiveness. Those dimensions include aspects related to emotions that trigger behavioural responses: feelings of isolation, discrimination, effects on the sense of dignity and self-respect, and disempowerment. We have come a long way in our thinking about poverty, but our actions to tackle it and to understand the complex interactions between dimensions remains underdeveloped.

At the World Bank, the project on “Voices of the Poor,” started almost 30 years ago, strove to think differently about poverty. It drew on the views of 60,000 people living in poverty across 60 countries to better understand the challenges they faced, helping expand our understanding of poverty to include not only income and consumption but also lack of access to education and health, powerlessness, voicelessness, vulnerability, and fear. Later, in 2012, the Social Observatory project used a broader view of poverty dimensions to make anti-poverty projects more adaptive—and ultimately more effective. Since 2018, the World Bank’s multidimensional poverty measure has gone beyond monetary deprivation to include other dimensions such as access to education, health, nutritional, and basic infrastructure services. And in 2023, the World Bank began publishing the multidimensional poverty index—an effort by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative and the United Nations Development Programme—which is especially pertinent for low-income countries.

More recently, researchers from the University of Oxford and the global anti-poverty movement ATD Fourth World uncovered a set of “hidden dimensions of poverty” through a three-year participatory research project in six countries (Bangladesh, Bolivia, France, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that sought to further refine our understanding of poverty.

The teams identified nine dimensions of poverty that were common across all countries, despite the vastly different circumstances in each, using the “merging of knowledge” methodology. This approach brings together people in poverty (with their knowledge of the reality of poverty), academics (with their scientific knowledge), and practitioners (with their action-based knowledge). The identified dimensions included a lack of decent work or income, of course, but also feelings of powerlessness, lacking control, and experiencing “povertyism” (negative attitudes and behaviours toward people living in poverty).

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