Reflections of an Aid Worker from South Sudan

BANGKOK – The life of an aid worker is almost never easy, but adjusting to normal life comes with its own difficulties. Roman Majcher never makes plans for a night out in Bangkok city, where he is stationed now, because he would probably end up drowsing off on a barstool. In South Sudan, where he had spent the last ten years, everyone would have to turn in when the sun went down. There was never any electricity to waste, because South Sudan completely lacks a power grid. The only people who had electricity were those who could afford their own generator. There was also no sewage system and no running water. Water was taken straight from the Nile and delivered in trucks, unfiltered, to the humanitarian camps where Majcher worked as an aid worker.

“You think Afghanistan is bad to work in? Well, Afghanistan is paradise compared to South Sudan”, Majcher said, gesticulating emphatically. “There is nothing there, and nothing works.”

South Sudan is a country the size of France, and has only 360 km of paved roads. People who live outside the cities are completely cut off from the rest of the world. Aid organizations usually rely on helicopters to drop off food, water and medicine to desperate people. But during the rainy season, or in conflict-prone areas, transportation becomes exponentially harder. In these cases, Majcher says, bitterness entering his voice, “people starve and then they die. it’s as simple as that.” In most villages, living until thirty-five means you are old.

Working in these situations, where you are faced with immense psychological stress, guilt and physical hardship, it can get very hard to go on. Even more difficult is conceding that the unspeakable suffering you are confronted with is caused by unacceptable reasons that are difficult, if not impossible, to change. The government policy in Khartoum, for instance, was to actively keep South Sudan as undeveloped as possible. It only allowed enough aid in to keep the area under control, but kicked you out if you wanted to create something more sustainable.

“Realizations like these were the hardest to stomach,” Majcher said, shaking his head. “I was young and stupid and idealistic when I first started humanitarian work. I didn’t really understand that people could be agonizingly evil to each other on purpose. There aren’t really good guys or bad guys. Everyone is as opportunistic as the next person.” Many other misconceptions Majcher had were shattered too. He realized that the poor could be as corrupt and greedy as the rich, that the needy would not always be grateful for his presence, that people would hate him simply because he was white, because it then followed that he was imperialistic.

Some aid workers cope with these mental burdens by becoming callous and numbed to the waves of human suffering they see everyday. Many more start to become viciously cynical and stop believing that their work matters at all. But Majcher believes that cynicism is anathema to humanitarian work; it is a cancer that, more than corruption, misinformation or even a lack of donor money, can render aid ineffective. Simply put, once you stop believing that your work makes a difference, you do not do it as well.

Majcher believes that the solution is not to be blindly idealistic or stupidly optimistic, but rather it is to make a conscious decision to ignore the bigger picture and focus only on the quality of the paint. “You need to accept that the world is messed up and will probably never be perfect,” Majcher said, peering earnestly through his wire-rimmed glasses. “But the point of your existence is to help ensure that, for now, this child’s life will be a little bit better. Even if it may end tomorrow.” This type of help is not necessarily quantifiable, but then again the most important things in life never are. Aid, contrary to how most people look at it, cannot always be seen as an investment.

This is a sentiment Majcher understands well. He was born with muscular dystrophy, a disease where your muscles are so weak you can barely move without falling over. At fourteen, Majcher’s body was so curved that his nose was bumping against his knees. Poland, his home country, was at the time still a communist nation with atrociously bad medical care and a depressing lack of resources. Even at that age, Majcher understood that he was dying.

But hope came out of nowhere. Doctors in France took up his case for no real reason, other than basic human kindness. One by one, they struggled through the visa processes and arrived in Poland, armed with instruments, machines, medicines and determination. They worked with him for seven years, conducting dozens of operations, until Majcher was well enough to live a relatively normal life. “Why did I win this lottery?” Majcher had always wondered. He began to feel that he had to pay back what he received.

Malthusianism: Theories on Poverty and Aid Theories on Poverty and Aid
Thomas Malthus was a clergyman and philosopher of the late 18th century. His ideas on the causes of poverty and the means by which it could be eliminated were controversial for his time and would probably have been unspeakable in ours. However, his work shaped England’s “Poor Laws,” influenced scientists and philosophers such as Charles Darwin, and remains pertinent today.

Malthus believed that the population would always increase more rapidly than food supply, which meant that large numbers of people would always suffer from starvation and poverty. His calculations demonstrated that while food supply grew at a linear rate, populations tended to grow at an exponential one.

The inspiration behind his ideas came from his work as a parish priest, where he noticed that the numbers of poor people he was baptizing far outstripped the number of deaths he was recording. As a member of a wealthy family himself, he was also struck by the abject poverty and miserable conditions the poor were living in. At the time, almost a seventh of England was on some sort of welfare, but its population was booming.

Carrying out more studies on England’s poor gave Malthus a clearer picture of the problem. Poor families showed a tendency to have more children when their economic situation improved, even slightly, as it had after the industrial revolution. This had the effect of again lowering the average living standard of the entire family.

In this sort of poverty trap, the poor would remain unable to escape their condition. A poor family was also generally more likely to have a greater of number of children because some were always expected to die in their infancy. The solution, Malthus stated, was to encourage the poor to marry later and have fewer children, if any at all. By having children, they would be sentencing more people to live in poverty and starvation.

The way to encourage the poor to adopt this solution would be to eliminate all types of aid. While this would initially be very hard and even cruel, it would eliminate poverty and dismantle the poverty trap in the long run.

What welfare did, Malthus believed, was encourage the poor to marry earlier even when they could not support a family and have children they could not afford. The effect of this was that families continued to be poor and live on the very barest of necessities. England’s Poor Laws, which propped up people who suffered from bad harvests, was creating the very poverty it hoped to eliminate.

Once these practices were taken up, food supply could finally keep up with the lowered population growth. If food supply could not keep up, Malthus believed that three necessary and inevitable things would take place: plague, famine and war. These would once again balance out the population, but at a much greater cost.

Critics have generally attacked Malthusianism from two different angles. One side believes that a small population is not good for a country. The Mercantalists argue that high population growth, even if it results in poverty, is good for the country. It would provide it with people to fight in the army, work in factories and provide cheap services.

Mercantalists did not want the population to earn very high wages or live far above the poverty line—this would stagnate economic growth and weaken the nation. Modern anti-Malthusians also believe that low birth rates are bad for the economy because the workforce would not be able to support its older population.

Other critics of Malthusianism believe that his proposed solutions are not the best way to tackle poverty. They are needlessly inhumane. Human ingenuity can come with with solutions to expand food supply to meet population needs. Norman Borlaug, the mind behind the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, is cited as an example. He created strains of corn and wheat that had much higher yields than before, saving millions from starvation.

Neo-Malthusians, as modern proponents of Malthus are called, say the current statistics speak for themselves. Populations in almost every developing country are growing rapidly as they become wealthier and advancements in medicine keep more children and older people alive. In the last 110 years, the world’s population has grown from 1.6 billion to 7.2 billion.

But 805 million worldwide go to bed hungry, and most are from developing countries. A fourth of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are chronically malnourished. More than 750 million lack access to clean water, which leads to 850,000 deaths per year. In major cities, such as Mumbai, half the population are living in wretched and slum-like conditions. In Sub-Saharan Africa, this number reached 61 percent. Most poor people continue to have more children than they can afford to take care of.

While the poor continue to have high fertility rates, they will continue to be poor. Neo-Malthusians advocate for better family planning, a change in societal expectations and norms, greater access to contraceptives and more education about conception to reduce the poor’s fertility rates.

Sources: Orion Magazine, Population Connection, Economist, BBC
Photo: Flickr

Debates Over Deworming
Although multiple studies have found that worm infections in developing countries should be treated with deworming pills, there is some debate within health organizations as to who qualifies for treatment. Currently there are 280 million children that are being treated for worms worldwide, but some experts believe that this is excessive.

When people are infected by worms, they suffer multiple ailments, primarily internal bleeding, which can lead to a loss of iron and anemia. Worms also cause diarrhea and malabsorption of nutrients. Compounding the problem, people also suffer a loss of appetite, which means they ingest less food overall. People most at risk are children and women of childbearing age.

Deworming people, especially children of a young age, has shown to be an effective measure to ensure that they stay in school for longer periods of time. A study conducted in Kenya after a deworming program showed that school absenteeism decreased by 25 percent. Even improved attendance in schools in which no children were treated within a three kilometer radius was remarked.

However, diagnosis is relatively expensive in developing countries because it involves a lab analysis of fecal matter, costing four to ten times the price of treatment. Some experts therefore recommend that mass deworming programs be carried out where a large number have been found to be infected.

This is currently the World Health Organization’s policy. Some scientists have challenged this practice, claiming that the available evidence is not enough to assure the safety or necessity of mass treatments. They believe that a lack of teachers, rather than absent children, are the cause of most problems in education in developing countries.

The deworming medication itself is extremely cheap, at just 30 to 40 cents per child. Many studies have suggested that this is a cost effective way of getting kids to go to school. These children also performed better at academic tests eight year later and at cognitive tests ten years later. In the southern United States, a deworming campaign in the early 1900’s had the same effects.

Sources: The Conversation, Harvard University, Voxeu, WHO
Photo: Answers

The Poor Find Haven In Monrovia’s Cemeteries
Liberia has had a trying past couple of decades. Most recently, it was plagued by the Ebola virus, which killed thousands of people. Before this, it had suffered though a 14-year-long civil war, which had taken place just a few years after yet another civil war ended. Both wars killed hundreds of thousands of people, leaving many homeless and destitute. Lacking housing or money, many poverty-stricken Liberians have turned to living in cemeteries, many of which are in Monrovia, its capital.

Most go to the Palm Grove Cemetery. Many of these dwellers arrived when they were just children and after their parents had been killed. Some had been child soldiers. They were taken there by friends from the street, who used the relative peace and security of the cemetery to indulge in marijuana, cocaine and heroin. They used tombs for shelter after smashing them open and throwing out their long-dead inhabitants.

Monrovians look upon the cemetery dwellers with distaste and fear. They are viewed as criminals and drug addicts who disrespect the graves of their families and are deprecatorily called “friends of the dead.” On Decoration Day, a public holiday when Liberians paint and adorn tombs, conflict always erupts between the tomb dwellers and the families of the tombs’ rightful owners.

Rather than provide an area for the homeless to live in, President Johnson Sirleaf simply put up walls around the cemetery in 2007 to keep them out. Just a few months later, however, people had already breached the walls to live in the cemetery once again. Now the walls serve to better hide the dwellers and their activities rather than keep them out.

Prostitution has also become commonplace behind the cemetery’s walls. Some women and girls are only able to survive through sex work. They are afforded no protection from the police, who often rape them themselves. Unwanted births are commonplace.

Many diseases also run rampant. Ebola was just another problem to add to a list of illnesses that included ones such as tuberculosis and diarrhea.

Hope may yet be around the corner for these cemetery residents. Last year, the British charity organization Street Child began to work with them, setting up counseling sessions, schools and rehab centers. However, many roadblocks stand in the way of their progress. It is extremely difficult for many residents to even consider weaning themselves off their dependency on drugs. Sometimes, drugs make them aggressive and hostile, which makes it hard for people from Street Child to engage with them.

The outbreak of Ebola also set back efforts. Schools were banned, as were public gatherings. Street Children also started redirecting efforts to the 2,000 children orphaned because of Ebola. Officials have been hostile to Street Children’s efforts in cemeteries, calling their residents a “lost cause.”

Now that Ebola has largely disappeared in Liberia, Street Children is ready to make a renewed effort to help the cemetery dwellers. To the charity organization, small successes have boosted their belief that these people can be saved from a lifetime of poverty and dependency.

Sources: Independent, BBC 1, BBC 2
Photo: Independent

Climate Change Refugees and the Man from Kiribati
A man from Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island, has asked New Zealand to officially recognize him as a climate change refugee. New Zealand refused what was the world’s first appeal for climate change refugee status, and Ioane Teitiota now faces deportation. Teitiota had argued that rising sea levels had damaged his crops and contaminated the water supply, and that he feared a worsening situation in the future. Kiribati is expected to be three-fourths underwater in just 30 years. Its government has had to buy land from Fiji.

Climate change refugees might soon become a common place occurrence. Sea levels are predicted to rise by at least a couple of feet in the next few decades. Cities, or even countries, that lie below sea level are at high risk of being submerged. Bangladesh, for instance, would have already lost 17 percent of its land by 2050. An estimated 20 million people from this highly over-populated country are expected to become refugees. Rising sea levels could also sink all 1,200 of Maldives’ islands. Its government is attempting to work out an evacuation plan with nearby countries. Other coastal cities such as Manhattan, London, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Mumbai are at risk. Entire cultures and identities could be wiped away forever.

Droughts and desertification are increasingly destroying arable land, forcing many people to migrate further inland to already crowded cities. The Gobi Desert, for instance, expands 3,600 km square each year. Morocco, Tunisia and Libya are losing 1,000 km sq each annually. Poorer countries that depend on agriculture for both economic growth and basic subsistence are heavily impacted by the increasingly extreme weather patterns. Food security will become a serious issue for many countries when it was not before.

Although the need for one is clear, a universally accepted definition of climate refuge is lacking. The Global Governance House defines climate refugees as environmental migrants forced to move “due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.” Environmental migrants are defined as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” by the International Organization for Migration.

Last year, 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters. Of this number, an astounding 20 million were climate change refugees. António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, predicts that the number will increase rapidly, and not just because of changes in weather in climate. The shortage of food and clean water will lead to “resource wars,” as they are called in popular culture. Increased competition for water, food and grazing lands will lead to conflict. A recent study predicts that the probability of civil war will increase in Africa by more than 50 percent by 2030 as compared to 1990.

Sources: UNHCR, Telegraph, International organization for Migration, Global Governance House,National Geographic
Photo: ABC

Mice Utopias and the Behavioral Sink
John Calhoun’s Behavioral Sink experiment was undoubtedly one of the most discussed during the 1970s. It is still highly relevant today when the effects of overpopulation are discussed. With his “rat utopias”, Calhoun proved that overpopulation is not a problem because it leads to a scarcity of resources – overpopulation is a problem in itself. It results in violence, a rejection of social roles and the eventual breakdown of society.

Calhoun had been creating “rat utopias” since the 1940s, but it was only his “Universe 25” of 1972 that captured both academia and the public’s attention. Four breeding pairs of mice were introduced into a box 100-inches square and 54-feet high. It was a “perfect universe.” The mice were safe from predators and disease and given ample food and water. Calhoun was trying to figure out how the mice would react to it. After about 100 days, the mice started breeding. They doubled in population every 55 days.

Although the mice were in a sort of “mouse heaven,” things soon took a nasty turn. By Day 315, males had stopped defending their territory – there were too many mice to fight against. Random violence broke out between mice for no reason. Female mice would attack their own offspring. Normal social bonds and interactions completely broke down. Procreation screeched to a halt, infant abandonment soared, and mortality climbed. Cannibalism appeared, even though there was more than enough food, and some mice became pansexual, even though there were ample females for each male. As time went on, it seemed that the mice had lost the ability to carry out the complex social interactions that would allow them to procreate. Fertile females closed themselves off from society and males of reproductive age – Calhoun called them the “beautiful ones” – and did nothing but eat, sleep and groom.

This breakdown of society and social roles was named the “Behavioral Sink.” Calhoun believed it came about when there were too many mice and a lack of important social roles for each one to play. By Day 560, population growth ground to a halt. The box had 2,200 mice, although it was able to hold far more. Barely any mice survived past weaning. Calhoun found that even when enough of the population died off so that only an optimal population remained, the mice were not able to return to their natural behavior. Never being a part of normal society themselves, the mice simply did not know what it was; they did not even show the understanding that they were in an abnormal state of affairs. The population of “Universe 25” slowly became extinct.

Many people believed that the behavior of Calhoun’s mice and the Behavioral Sink could be extrapolated to humans. The connection between a breakdown of social bonds and violence was observed by Emile Durkheim in the late 19th century. In traditional societies, where family expectations and religion held sway, people enjoyed strong social bonds and had distinct social roles to fill. However, as they moved to cities, they found they were fighting for a place in society. In exasperation and a state of helplessness, many fell into poverty or turned to crime, violence and even suicide.

The fear of failing to be a productive member of society and fulfilling social roles can also push people, like the “beautiful ones,” into isolating themselves. The infamous Japanese hikikomori are a case in point. They are people who refuse to leave their rooms, sometimes for years at a time. They feel shame for being unable to fulfill familial expectations, find the “right” job or be a productive member of society. These men (and sometimes women) hole themselves up in their rooms and never come out.

However, it is not clear that a high population density necessarily leads to a breakdown of society and social roles. Humans might be able, with our ingenuity and almost unlimited demands, to create social roles for everyone and avoid the Behavioral Sink. Some critics, such as psychologist Jonathan Freedam, suggested that it was not the density of population that overwhelmed the mice but the large number of social interactions they had to deal with. Humans are able to avoid this, even while living in a highly dense area.

Sources: Cabinet Magazine, National Institutes of Health, Open Yale Courses, BBC

Psychological Effects of Poverty

Bradley Ariza, a man living in the U.K. with his girlfriend and children, is stressed all the time. In addition to constant hunger and insecurity, he needs to carefully calculate every calorie he eats to make sure he has enough, and count every penny he spends to ensure that his finances remain in order. He feels the constant pressure to maintain certain livings standards for his family. Poverty becomes a “physical and psychological condition,” not just an economic one.

Studying the psychological effects of poverty is not usually met with enthusiastic approval. In the past, such research was often tainted with racism. It was also accused as being a way of blaming the poor for their behavior. Sometimes it has been seen as unnecessary because of the belief that although the poor are more deprived, they are happier. However, scholarly and public opinions are becoming increasingly more open to studying the effects of poverty on psychology and behavior. It is slowly beginning to be seen as a way to tackle poverty.

Poverty creates a “mindset of scarcity,” as behavioral economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir have termed it. People are more likely to focus on current, pressing issues rather than long-term ones, even if they might be as important to their well-being. For instance, Indian farmers might prioritize their coming harvest over vaccinating their children. Some researchers have even found that the IQ of Indian sugarcane farmers falls just before their harvest.

Studies have already shown that poorer people have elevated levels of stress, and it is also widely known that stress is linked to depression. Depression, which causes absenteeism and lower levels of productivity, costs the U.S. and U.K. up to one percent of their GDP each year. People who are suffering from extreme stress and depression are less likely to make long-term investments in their health and education. They are more inclined to seek short-term rewards rather than long-term ones because they find it harder to delay gratification. These psychological effects of living in poverty make it more difficult for people to climb out of it.

Researchers are now exploring whether lowering stress and depression can improve people’s mental states enough so that they make better financial decisions and are more motivated about their future. When they are offered more psychological-centered treatments, such as therapy or counseling, people might be more likely to build a path out of the poverty trap. Studying this connection could also help explain why aid sometimes does not seem to work as it should. Microloans, for instance, might be financially helpful, but the added stress to repay loans might make poorer people’s lives worse.

Direct aid, instead of microloans, might be more beneficial. Johannes Haushofer, founder of the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, has started studying how stress affects one’s ability to make good financial decisions. He found that giving unconditional cash transfers to families lowered their levels of depression and stress. In turn, they were more likely to make long-term, thought-out financial decisions. The effects were especially prominent when the cash transfer was a big enough size and given to women.

Sources: Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Harvard

The Concept Behind $300 Housing


The concept of building cheap houses for the poor to improve their living standards is hardly a new one. However, a house that is sustainable, affordable, part of an “ecosystem” of services of electricity, water and sanitation, and, perhaps most importantly, maintains people’s dignity. Sounds far-fetched, especially with price tag of just $300. Vijay Govindarajan and Christian Sarkar, the brains behind the idea, believe that it can be done.

Govindarajan and Sarkar first outlined their concept in a Harvard Business review blog a few years ago. Since then, architects, companies and other students have all tried to take up the challenge of building such a house. Some have had limited success, while others introduced ideas that make the concept even more inspiring.

The solution to the problem of affordable housing, Govindarajan and Sarkar argue, comes about when companies start treating the poor as valued customers. Once they are, innovation and efficiency will fill the gap governments and NGOs have not been able to satisfy. The market for affordable housing amounts to more than $5 trillion.

More than 1.5 billion people in the world lack houses that are sustainable and able to cater to their needs. More than 330 million of them live in slums, where poor quality housing compounds the problems of unsanitary practices and overcrowding. This number is projected to rise by another million by 2025.

Govindarajan and Sarkar believe that the secret to affordable and sustainable homes lies in three “D’s”: dignity, durability and delight. Building homes out of waste material furthers inequality and the segregation of poor communities from the richer. The house must be built of out materials that would maintain the dignity of the poor.

The house should also be durable, because a house that constantly falls into disrepair will end up being more expensive to the owners. It should also be appealing to the eye and enjoyable to live in. When owners regard their house as more of a home rather than just their living quarters, they will be more inclined to look after it.

Harvey Lacey, an engineer from Texas, took these ideas even further. He calls his concept Ubuntublox, where people build their houses themselves. This helps create an attachment to the house and teaches them the skills they would need to maintain it.

Sources: The Guardian, Harvard Business Review 1, Harvard Business Review 2, Harvard Business Review 3, Harvard Business Review 4
Photo: Weymouth

Effects of Open Defecation in India

The extent of open defecation in India presents a major health and safety issue. Worldwide, there are one billion people who do not have a toilet, and Indians make up 60 percent of this number. Of this 60 percent, the majority comes from rural areas. Activists and the government have advocated for the building of shared community toilets as a solution to the problem, but ingrained social norms and attitudes stop people from using them.

The government launched the Swachh Bharat Mission last year, which promises 110 million toilets built in the next five years in an effort to make India an “open defecation free country.” In an added bonus, the waste collected would be converted to fertilizer and other forms of energy. Lauded as a “sacred mission” that would coincide with the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, this mission has gained approval from almost all sections of the government and society.

But most people from rural areas have shown an unwillingness to discontinue their habits of open defecation even if they are given toilets. Many people who already have toilets in their house forgo its use in favor of defecating in the open. In 40 percent of households that had a toilet, at least one member chose not to use it at all. They believe that defecating in the open is more natural and healthy, and that building a latrine in the house brings impurity to it. The two thousand year old Hindu text, called the “Laws of Manu,” encourages open defecation.

Community toilets also have the added problem of being—by nature—shared, and people from different castes, religions and economic status are not willing to use the same toilet, even if they come from the same village.

However, open defecation practices remain a huge health and safety risk, and issues will only increase as India’s population grows. There have been hundreds of cases of women being raped as they leave their homes after dark. In one notorious case, two women from Utter Pradesh were raped, murdered and hung on trees after they were defecating in an open field.

India’s dense population also means that even in rural areas, human feces are not easily kept away from fields, wells and food. Bacteria and worms in feces are often accidentally ingested. This results in a range of health problems from diarrhea to enteropathy, a chronic sickness that prevents the absorption of calories and nutrients. Many specialists believe that the problems open defecation causes are the reason 50 percent of Indian children are malnourished.

A government study comparing Muslim and Hindu households supports these conjectures. The study found that 25 percent fewer Muslim families defecated in the open and also had lower child morality rates than Hindu families—even though Muslims in India are poorer and less educated than their Hindu counterparts. In the few areas where more Muslims defecated in the open than Hindus, they had higher child morality rates.

Social norms and habits need to be changed if open defecation is to be successfully fought. Simply building more toilets will not do the job. The government has already taken some steps to educate people about the dangers of open defecation and reward those who use latrines. In Haryana for instance, it launched the “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign that urged women to only marry men whose home had a toilet.

Sources: Scroll, Government of India, The Economist, BBC,
Photo: Siasat

Major Poverty Measurements

Different organizations and governments measure poverty differently. This makes it difficult to establish an understanding of which people should be categorized as poor. Below are some measurements that have been developed to set worldwide standards for the poverty line.

Absolute Poverty Measurement

This measurement refers to the amount of resources a person needs to maintain a minimum standard of living. The absolute poverty line can remain the same regardless of how much the overall standard of living or income distribution changes in a society. The World Bank’s poverty line of $1.25 worldwide is an example of an absolute poverty measurement.

Advantages: It allows for easy comparison between different countries.

Disadvantages: It does not always accurately represent the different costs of subsistence from country to country. It is simplistic and does not reflect indebtedness, health, education, housing or access to public services. Measurements do not take into account the amount of consecutive years people live under the poverty line.

Relative Poverty Measurement

This measurement refers to the living standard of a person relative to the rest of society, and changes as the standard of living in society shifts. Peter Townsend, a pioneering figure in defining relative poverty standards, defined people living in relative poverty as unable to “play the roles, participate in the relationships, and follow the customary behavior which is expected of them by virtue of their membership in society.” The EU calculates poverty using relative poverty measurements. Usually this means that people who earn only 40 to 70 percent of the average household income are categorized as under the poverty line.

Advantages: Reflects conditions in society at a specific time.

Disadvantages: It can give a skewed understanding of who lives in poverty, as people can be categorized as poor even if they are well-off simply because they have much less income relative to the rest of the population. It is simplistic and does not reflect indebtedness, health, education, housing or access to public services. Measurements do not take into account the amount of consecutive years people live under the poverty line.

Multidimensional Poverty Index

This measurement was established in 2010 to replace the Human Poverty Index of the United Nations Development program. It aimed to ameliorate the downsides of the absolute and relative poverty measurements. It measures poverty through three indicators: health, education level and standard of living. Each indicator has multiple sub-indicators. People are categorized as poor if they are deprived of more than a third of each indicator, while those who are deprived of half or more are in extreme poverty.

Advantages: The MPI allows measurements that can be compared accurately across different regions, countries, ethnic groups and other community characteristics.

Disadvantages: Measurements do not usually take into account the amount of consecutive years people live under the poverty line.

Sources: University of Pennsylvania, The European Anti-Poverty Network, Instituto Nacional De Estadistica, Oxford Poverty & Human Development, United Nations Development Program
Photo: United Nations Development Program