Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Part 1: Economy and society: development issues

Poverty, vulnerability, and rural development
Environmental management and social equity
Introduction to population, resources, and sustainable development in sub-saharan africa
Urbanization and industrialization: What future for Sub-Saharan Africa?
Urban environmental management and issues in Africa south of the Sahara

Poverty, vulnerability, and rural development

The nature of poverty
Rural poverty and development in Sub-Saharan Africa
Aspects of economy and society in SS Africa
Poverty and economic reform


William B. Morgan

At the root of arguments about sustainable environments and the management of resource use lies a major preoccupation with poverty. For some social scientists it is the chief concern in the study of less developed countries, and its elimination or at least the raising of minimal living standards should be regarded as one of the main objectives of research and policy formulation. Economic reform combined with conservation of the environment should always be formulated with regard to what has now been seen in many countries and major regions as the crisis of the poor (for a comprehensive account of rural poverty in the third world, see Jazairy, Alamgir, and Panuccio 1992).

The nature of poverty

In Sub-Saharan Africa (SS Africa) we are concerned with both poor people and poor countries. Some poor countries are simply averagely low on some income scale, but some suffer in addition from being very small and therefore unable, for certain forms of production, to achieve economies of scale or to provide an adequate domestic market. The data for national wealth and productivity are more abundant than those for human groups, and the data for rural poverty (since this paper is concerned with rural development) are limited to just a few national attempts to measure such items as the percentage of poor people, income distribution, consumption levels, or access to services and resources. Poverty not only affects a particular human group such as an income or occupation group, but is a problem of gender, where, in many societies, women are likely to be more adversely affected than men, and of age, where old people and children are more likely to be adversely affected than people of working age.

Poverty may be seen as both relative and absolute, and in attempts to analyse it at world and national scales there is a major problem with a concept that has so many attributes varying in both time and space. Most attempts to measure poverty are forced into simplification and the use of poverty indicators or surrogates, which are rarely brought together in a way that reflects the real complexity of poverty. The problems are compounded by "us" and "them" attitudes, i.e. by social researchers who make up their minds what measures must truly reflect poverty without asking poor people themselves, often on the grounds that most poor people cannot adequately articulate their own problems, particularly in rural areas where educational standards in many countries are low.

In 1985 a World Bank report claimed that there were over 1 billion poor people in the less developed countries, of whom 180 million were in SS Africa (without South Africa) (World Bank 1990: 139). By the year 2000 it was thought that the world total would be reduced to 825 million while the SS African total would have increased to 265 million. The proportion of the SS African population in poverty in 1985 was estimated at nearly 47 per cent and was second in the world to that of South Asia. By the year 2000 it should be just over 43 per cent and proportionately the world's worst case because the South Asian figure should have reduced from 51 per cent to 26 per cent (World Bank 1990: 29 and 139). South Asia will, however, still have the largest total of poor people at 365 million. These somewhat heroic estimates were based on a global "poverty line" income for 1985 of US$370 per capita per annum (adjusted for purchasing power parity [PPP]). The World Bank also had an "extremely poor" upper income level of US$275 per capita per annum, which included 120 million or 31 per cent of the African total. All these estimates were derived from a range of country-specific poverty lines based on consumption estimates for a number of low-income countries, i.e. the expenditure necessary to buy a minimum standard of nutrition and other basic necessities plus the cost of participating in the everyday life of society (World Bank 1990: 26-30 and 139; Ravallion 1992: 2533). They are probably the best global estimates that we have, providing one accepts a poverty line as at least some sort of indicator (criticized by Chambers and Conway 1992; see below p. 20). The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (1991: 15-18, 8891, and 194-195) has provided estimates of numbers and percentages of people "below the poverty line" for a number of countries, totalling 1.2 billion for the less developed countries in 1990 (UNDP 1991: 125), and using "real GDP" in the calculation, i.e. gross domestic product per capita adjusted for PPP. The "poverty line" was defined as "that income level below which a minimum nutritionally adequate diet plus essential non-food requirements are not affordable" (UNDP 1991: 195).

Ravallion noted that real income poverty lines for different countries tended to rise with economic growth, but did so only slowly at the poorest levels, accelerating as growth increased. He argued that this suggested that the notion of "absolute poverty" (and therefore the World Bank's use of such a measure) appeared to be especially relevant to low-income countries, whereas "relative poverty" was of more relevance to high-income countries (Ravallion 1992: 31-33). Terms such as "minimum nutritionally adequate" and "essential nonfood requirements", used with reference to poverty lines, are in a sense not absolute minima. Many poor people try to survive below these levels although their standards of living include poor diets, periodic hunger, and inadequate clothing.

For the purpose of global analysis, UN agencies such as UNDP and the World Bank generally prefer simple definitions of poverty and measurable practical attributes. Thus the World Bank defines poverty as "the inability to attain a minimal standard of living" and distinguishes it from inequality, which "refers to the relative living standards across the whole society" (World Bank 1990: 26). By contrast, some researchers offer more complex views of the nature of poverty in which they try to examine the interrelationships of a number of elements leading to deprivation. Thus Sen's (1984 and 1987) concept of "capability" referred to how far a person could avoid poverty by seeking to be adequately nourished and clothed and to avoid escapable morbidity and preventable mortality, but this was linked to the quality of life and the ability to choose valued activities (Sen 1987: 18). Capabilities also included the ability to cope with stress and shock and the ability to gain access to such things as services and information. In writing of hunger Sen argued that marked disparities in consumption might be concealed in data showing an adequate food supply for a given population and suggested that the problem was one of "acquirement." This is a central issue in problems of hunger and starvation and can be extended to most issues of deprivation and poverty. Sen added to this the concept of "entitlement," by which he meant what can be acquired or the set of alternative commodity bundles that a person of a given status and income can or should be able to obtain, together with bodily attributes such as labour power (Sen 1990: 34-41). The problem for poor people is not just a loss of or a fall in income resulting in an inability to buy essential goods, but a change in the minimum survival endowment, such as loss of land through alienation or sale to cover needs such as debt repayment, or loss of labour power owing to ill health.

Chambers has developed the notion of "integrated rural poverty" with its "clusters of disadvantage," including vulnerability (Chambers 1983: 1-27, 103-139; Chambers and Conway 1992). Chambers defined vulnerability as "a lack of buffers against contingencies," e.g. against the demands of social conventions, disasters, physical incapacity, unproductive expenditure, and exploitation. Vulnerability could also arise from a lack of power, demonstrated by the ease with which elites in some countries were able to intercept benefits intended for the poor. Rural people in the developing countries are in a deprivation trap in which powerlessness, vulnerability, physical weakness, poverty, and isolation combine. Poverty might also be affected by a process that could become irreversible - the so-called "poverty ratchet" -whereby assets (See's "endowment") were lost through the need to sell or mortgage them. Chambers and Conway (1992: 3) have developed these views in order to criticize production thinking (not producing enough food), employment thinking (the ideal of full employment), and poverty line thinking (the idea of a single deprivation continuum measured by incomes or consumption) as reductionist or having "an industrialized country imprint."

Poverty may also be seen as a many dimensional state in which a multidisciplinary approach to research into the processes that create or maintain it is essential. Survival within poverty includes many strategies, which are combined in a process aimed not just at income in the broadest sense but at assurance against the stresses and shocks to which poor people are particularly vulnerable. One such strategy is a mixture of jobs, some temporary, some full-time, some self employed, some working for others. This strategy represents an evolution from a more traditional combination of occupations, which survives in many peasant households where farm work has a variety of tasks and is combined with household tasks, house-building, hunting, gathering, and trading. Such a strategy is a means of not just increasing income but broadening the income base, which provides a means of assurance against shock. This is not to suggest that many of the African poor would not prefer a well-paid, full-time, permanent, socalled "formal" occupation. The savings of many rural families may be used to pay for the secondary education of their more able children and this may be seen in one way as part of a multi-occupational strategy at the household or family level, but in another as an attempt to obtain the financial rewards available to those who choose to depend on a specialized, normally urban, occupation.

Contents - Previous - Next