Dealing with poverty at the source

It is a known fact that we can significantly alleviate poverty only if we truly understand what makes the poor poor. However, understanding the determinants of poverty at household level proves to be somewhat elusive as there is a multitude of factors that work both in isolation and in interaction to inflict a household into poverty. The big challenge for policy makers and analysts is to isolate the main variables (both macro and micro) that perpetuate poverty because poverty is, generally, context-specific. For example, two members of the same household may experience the impacts of poverty differently.

The heterogeneous impact of household poverty is evidenced by how governments and non-state actors [frantically] respond to the poverty question. It is not uncommon to see or hear of a government or an NGO distributing blankets or crop seeds or constructing a Community Based Child Care Centre (CBCC) et cetera in the name of poverty alleviation. This brings us to the question; given the multivariate causes of poverty and poverty’s heterogeneous impacts on households and individuals, what can development workers prioritize to significantly reduce the depth and width of poverty?

Given the millions of dollars that have been invested poverty research as well as experience with “development” over the years, one would expect an easy and quick answer to this question. However, experience shows that to a large extent, we have not learned much from research and experience in poverty alleviation. I say this by looking at what governments and NGO are doing in the name of development and poverty alleviation. For example, in March of 2014, i was involved in evaluation of a “development” project implemented by a reputable international NGO that was distributing chicken eggs to households with under-five children as a means of improving child nutrition. The project was somehow linked to increased household incomes. (this is just a case in point)

Now, i know good child nutrition is a precursor of maximizing human potential but should we be distributing eggs to poor households to achieve the goal? For how long are we going to do this? This example takes us to the gist of this post. what variables should we prioritize on to improve rural livelihoods? my observation is that a significant chunk of poverty can be explained by low income earning ability. Poor education, malnutrition, early marriages and a great majority issues we define as poverty are actually manifestations of meager incomes.

I am of the view that if we are to truly alleviate household poverty, we must prioritize programs that improve households income earning ability. we all know about the multiplier effect of money. If households have more sources of incomes, they can afford nutritious food (rather than depending on egg hand-outs), better education (and hence delay child marriages), better medical care, etc.

I am not trying to say every development project should focus on increasing household incomes but knowing which specific determinants of poverty to focus our attention and resources can save us years of frustration and lost potential. in this case, I believe helping household earn more and save more is the way to go.

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