30 Nov 2016

Academics develop a full picture of poverty in the Pacific

From , 6:04 am on 30 November 2016

The first goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to eliminate poverty in all its forms.

But poverty is increasingly being recognised as much more than a lack of income and resources to ensure a sustainable livelihood.

The difficulty is to define this multi-dimensional poverty in a way that is relevant for each country, and this is the role statisticians such as Bristol University's Professor David Gordon have taken on.

Professor Gordon, who has recently been in Tonga where he ran workshops alongside other leading academics and statisticians, told Don Wiseman what they are aiming to do.

Jittu Estate near Suva, Fiji

Jittu Estate near Suva, Fiji Photo: RNZI / Sally Round

DAVID GORDON: In the past in the region, poverty has mainly been measured by looking at households which have very low income or very low expenditure, not enough really to feed themselves or to meet just their minimal basic needs. So what the sustainable development goals have done is ask countries to use national definitions to measure poverty in all its dimensions, not just for households but for men women and children and we have been helping the Pacific community to try and measure poverty in this way. In particular in many island communities people have firm social obligations as parents, as children, as spouses, as friends and they'll often need money in order to meet these obligations to honour their children's wedding, or buy presents for their friends and family at Christmas or other times of year and this social aspect of life is often as important or more important than the material needs. So what we're trying to do is to measure poverty not just in terms of whether people have food and clothes but also whether they can participate fully in the social life of their community to meet the social obligations they have.

DON WISEMAN: In terms of then broadening this out, what sort of definition of poverty do you have now?

DG: Well, it's a relative definition so what we do is we ask members of the public to identify what they believe are the necessities of life in their society and we only consider someone deprived if the majority of people, over 50 percent, say these things are necessary in their society so this gives you a socially realistic measurement of poverty and something that's easy to understand for both the public and politicians and is supported by the public and is supported by the public and is directly policy relevant. So if there are just nine in a household and it has too low an income we know if their children have the things they need to go to school, whether there's a place for them to do homework, or whether they have all of the uniform they need, we know if people have the clothing the need, shoes for example, keep out of the wet, we know if people have a reasonable diet by today's standards rather than just how many calories they've having and therefore politicians can target anti-poverty policies and specific problems that groups and households have rather than a general scattershot approach.

DW: In terms of the attempts to achieve the sustainable development goals, will these new ideas in terms of just what poverty is and how it affects different communities and so on and so on, will that come into play?

DG: Yes so what the governments of the world have agreed to do is by 2030, eliminate poverty in its most extreme form and reduce poverty by half in this multi-dimensional form using the national definition, definitions that are relevant to each country, that includes not just Tonga and Samoa but also countries like New Zealand and Australia.

DW: It's a potentially huge departure for the likes of aid donors and charities and so on when they talk in terms of surviving on a dollar or a little more than a dollar a day, they're going to change they way they do things?

DG: Yes, so the dollar a day survival is still there, that needs to be eradicated by 2030. The governments of the world said they want to do more than that, they want to reduce poverty by half in a more meaningfully defined way, in terms that people understand not be enabled to take part as a citizen in their society, not being able to have the things most people take for granted, or do the things that they're required to do by their society so they're no longer excluded from taking part as a citizen.

DW: You've been down in Tonga the last few weeks, are you going to spend more time in the Pacific on this work?

DG: Very possibly, we've been talking to the statistical offices and politicians in a number of countries in the Pacific and several of them want to use this kind of methodology to develop their own national definitions of multi-dimensional poverty, and at the moment Vanuatu, Kiribati, and Fiji are taking this work forward and in the past we've been working with Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

DW: What sense do you get of poverty levels when you look at it from these perspectives in the Pacific compared with perhaps how it is generally viewed?

DG: The levels tend to be obviously higher if you look at poverty in all its dimensions. You get more people who are being excluded in certain aspects of poverty than if you're just looking at a very crude income poverty line which tends not to measure comprehensively the way people live. So what you know is that people are using an income line, are below a certain threshold, but you don't know how this is affecting how they live day to day whereas with these multi-dimensional measures you get a very clear idea of how people are living.