Defining poverty is vital if you want to fix it

Frank Vollmer, Pedro Zorrilla-Miras and Bjorn Schulte-Herbruggen
February 22, 2017

What does poverty actually mean, and does it even matter? This fundamental question was discussed at a special session during the European Ecosystem Services Conference held in Antwerp last year.

ESPA researchers were the only participants looking at ecosystems at a global level, and more specifically in the context of helping poorer communities across the world. Here, in a joint blog, our researchers share the presentations and their insight in to why it is vital to define poverty if you want to fix it.

The services that nature provides contribute to human wellbeing in many ways, as highlighted in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment project. Ecosystem services can act as a “safety net” for local communities to support livelihoods in times of crises, or they can be commercialised to provide a “pathway out of poverty” through the likes of eco-tourism, fisheries, charcoal production etc.

Whether and how these ecosystem services contribute to poverty alleviation is at the core of all of the ESPA-funded projects, including our own ACES (Abrupt changes in Ecosystem Services and Wellbeing in Mozambican Woodlands) and SPACES (Sustainable Poverty Alleviation from Coastal Ecosystem Services)

The Sustainable Development Goals explicitly aim to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. That is the “eradication” of extreme poverty, measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day, and the reduction of “poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions”.

“Poverty in all its dimensions” can be difficult to capture, which is why the issue was debated at a specially convened session during the European Ecosystem Service Conference in Antwerp last year.

The objective of the panel was to stimulate debate by examining papers that explore if our understanding/definition of poverty impacts the way we assess the contribution that nature can make to alleviate poverty (a copy of the relevant presentations are included with this blog).

The discussions highlighted the challenge of studying and defining poverty in different countries and situations, with participants presenting many different approaches such as wealth rankings, subjective assessments of wellbeing, or constructed composite indices akin to the Multidimensional Poverty Index of the United Nations (an index that measures dimensions in relation to health, education, and the standard of living).

For practitioners, this means the definition of poverty can greatly alter the assessment of the role of ecosystem services, because what and who exactly is poor? Different concepts of poverty and approaches to its measurement result in the identification of different groups of people as poor.

For example, ACES found that 59% of the non-income poor (people living on more than $1.25 a day) are in acute multidimensional poverty, while in the SPACES project almost 63% of the non-income poor were deprived of their basic needs (in health and education, protective housing, and access to adequate nutritional food and clean water).

As a consequence, the impact of ecosystem services on poverty alleviation differed considerably depending on who was deemed poor and what concept that was based on. ACES indicated that higher incomes from charcoal production reduced income poverty rates and led to better rankings for charcoal producers, in participatory wealth rankings, but greater charcoal income was not enough to alleviate acute multidimensional poverty.

In SPACES, similarly, income generated from fishing appeared to lift people out of income poverty, while it did not have any statistically significant effect on people’s subjective wellbeing (people’s perception of their satisfaction with different aspects of their life). 

So what are the implications of these findings? It seems that while some ecosystem services are strongly associated with specific dimensions of poverty, their effect on others might be negligible.

For example strong correlations of provisioning ecosystem services such as charcoal making or from fishery exist with income and food security, but other poverty dimensions that are directly linked to public services such as access to clean drinking water, formal education or universal health coverage, are less influenced by ecosystem services because the link is indirect.

Future research on the influence of ecosystem services on poverty alleviation needs to explain which ecosystem services impact what dimension of poverty, and should highlight whether the link is direct or indirect.

This is an important step towards a greater understanding of the actual contribution ecosystem services make to poverty alleviation which will allow for a more informed debate. 

Conference Collateral:

Images courtesy of the authors