March 11, 2010

What does it mean to be poor?

In his lecture to the Emory community last week, Nobel Prize-winning economist and founder of the Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus, asked, "What does it mean to be poor?  What creates poverty?"  Is it attributable to particular conditions or characteristics?  Or is it a condition that is imposed on people?  For Yunus, poverty is created by the social, economic and political systems we have built; systems that value making money over nurturing the multidimensional nature of human beings.  Moving out of poverty requires recognition of our multidimensional nature and a willingness to put people ahead of profits.

Yunus' sentiments are echoed in new approaches to measuring poverty.  For many years poverty was measured on the basis of income.  If your income was below a certain level, you were poor.   But being poor involves much more than income - inadequate access to food, healthcare, education, transportation, sanitation, security, and a number of other issues.  Recent approaches to measuring poverty take these factors, and income, into account.  Joseph E. Foster, a professor of international affairs and economics at George Washington University and Sabina Alkire, director of the University of Oxford's Poverty & Human Development Initiative have developed a flexible, multidimensional measure of poverty that is being adopted by several countries.

According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this method of measuring poverty allows researchers to decide what categories are important to overall well-being.   They "can decide how many categories must be deficient to make a person poor, and can also weight certain categories as more important than others."  This approach allows for a more context-specific understanding of poverty, a more accurate picture of who needs help and what kind of help they need.  It also moves a step closer to Professor Yunus' vision of recognizing and nurturing the multiple dimensions of human beings.

To see Muhammad Yunus' lecture at Emory

To see the article in The Chronicle go to

Sita Ranchod-Nilsson

Sita Ranchod-Nilsson

Director, Institute for Developing Nations,
Emory University