Ecosystem services as a missing dimension of poverty
This project examined the role of ecosystem services in the conceptual understanding of poverty, by analysing the extent to which ecosystem services can be seen as a missing dimension of the way in which multidimensional poverty is defined.
The project undertook a review of the ways in which wellbeing and poverty are understood, and the extent to which elements of the natural environment contribute to improving wellbeing and reducing poverty. It focused on the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which defines poverty as a person's inability to meet the minimum internationally comparable standards in the core elements that are necessary for human flourishing, and will examine the extent to which access to ecosystem services can be conceptually included as one of the core elements that define wellbeing. The project's conceptual and theoretical contributions were primarily in identifying the philosophical and scientific arguments that suggest that lack of access to nature and ecosystem services reduces the capability of people to achieve their potential. In doing so, the project engaged with recent literature which assessed the subjective elements that make up the definitions of poverty and wellbeing, and the extent to which these are influenced by the ways in which humans interact with nature.
Having established the broader conceptual framework for incorporating ecosystem services into multi-dimensional poverty, the project operationalised this understanding by examining the extent to which existing methods for collecting poverty and environment data can be made more compatible. These include data collected at national level, spatially explicit data on the incidence of poverty and the occurrence of ecosystem services, as well as detailed household-level survey instruments which seek to understand multidimensional wellbeing as the use of, and dependence on, flows from natural ecosystems. The project tested these ideas in a small selection of case study locations, building on the existing work that is being undertaken by the project partners at global, national and sub-national scales.
The partners brought a unique set of resources and skills into productive conversation with each other, connecting knowledge communities that tended not to be well integrated with each other. The United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP WCMC) is the leading repository of global environmental data, but has tended not to have an explicit mandate to understand the poverty implications of these data; the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Intiative (OPHI) is at the cutting-edge of work that seeks to define and measure poverty, but has tended to pay relatively limited attention to the role of the environment in its definition of multidimensional poverty. The University of Cambridge provides a unique bridge across these communities, as well as to the wider portfolio of existing ESPA research. By making these connections, the project hoped to have an impact on the ways in which poverty and human wellbeing are understood and defined, especially in relation to ongoing discussions about the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.
Overall, therefore, the project made contributions at three distinct, inter-connected levels: (i) conceptual, in shifting the ways in which the relationship between ecosystem services and wellbeing and poverty is defined and understood; (ii) methodological, in developing techniques and protocols that allow the unification of hitherto distinct approaches to measuring and understanding poverty and environmental sustainability; and (iii) at the policy level, by contributing to the definition of international goals for human society in the twenty-first century, and associated targets to guide decision makers operating across a variety of spatial and temporal scales.