One of the “huge mistakes” defended “as great truths” in Paraguay is that businesspeople “pay a lot” to the revenue service while in fact “direct taxation, which is the most unfair, is the largest” and “poor people end up paying more than the rich”, according to a report by economist José Carlos Rodríguez. The report was presented this month at the launching of the programme “Impuestos justos para inversión social” [Fair taxes for social investment] promoted by the Campaña por la Expresión Ciudadana-Decidamos (national focal point of Social Watch) and Centro de Documentación y Estudios. [see more]
There are many perspectives as well as people in the world who have talked and written about poverty, failing to reach an agreement about what they are exactly referring to. In spite of having a common basis, there are multiple definitions and concepts on “poverty”.

Poverty is not only not having a job, or fearing for the future or living one day at a time. Poverty is also powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom. The main goal of development policies should be to free people from poverty, although this is not only about money or markets, or education and health – notwithstanding the fact that they are indeed very important – but about the access of people to resources and the real possibility of improving their lives.

Trillions of people suffer from hunger, diseases and desperation, living in a state of poverty that for a privileged minority seems to be an inevitable and natural component of the geopolitical scenery. While heads of state of the developed world reiterate their commitment to “eradicate poverty”, not a hint of will is yet evidenced on their part to attack its systemic causes, but rather the will of corporative and political elites to maintain the status quo.

Multilateral institutions, overwhelmingly devoted to “development” policies, adhere to neoliberal growth strategies aimed at privatisations, capital accumulation and investments. These institutions – the World Bank included – persistently ignore the fact that such growth does not necessarily relieve poverty although, in turn, it may increase it. Many civil society organizations promote small-scale social development programmes in impoverished countries, but provided economic and social policies continue to favour an unequal distribution of wealth, poverty will continue to be a reality for most people throughout the world.


Due to the highly controversial nature of poverty studies, some of the problems arising when setting international measures are the same as those that are faced when countries establish national poverty lines. Although it might be useful to resort to income based measures, these on their own are insufficient, as concepts of poverty are becoming more complex and multidimensional. There is now a wide consensus regarding the fact that access to health and education is just as important as income and that in the future, the consensus will probably include empowerment and participation in citizen life.

However, explicit or not, making international comparisons of deprivation among countries requires the setting of various criteria as a starting point. In particular, it requires deciding whether it is necessary and possible to establish a common poverty line against which all countries can be compared, and determining its characteristics.

The World Bank (WB) has advocated making these comparisons according to consumption or income, and in particular, has established a threshold of one dollar per day per person, based on 1985 purchasing power parity. One of the criticisms of the WB poverty line is that setting an international basic consumption line would be a very difficult task, especially considering the diversity among the different parts of the world or even within regions in meeting the basic caloric and nutritional needs. (1)

Amartya Sen (2), one of the most important intellectuals in terms of conceptualisation, operability and design of methods to measure poverty and human development, analysed that progress cannot be measured by the usual gross domestic product per capita alone. In turn, it is necessary to advance towards a broader and more realistic vision of progress and poverty. Rather than measuring poverty by income level, Sen recommends calculating how much an individual can achieve with that income, taking into account that such achievements will vary from one individual to another and from one place to another.

According to Sen, history in recent decades has evidenced that without social development there is no sustained growth. His contributions were utterly useful in the creation of the United Nations Human Development Index.

The efforts made by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - crystallised in the Human Development Index - also point to broadening the dimensions used to evaluate the performance of the different countries.

More recently, non-material or symbolic dimensions have also been included into the concept of poverty, such as the increasingly necessary management of several codes of modernity, being among them: analytical disposition, information processing capacity, communication and management abilities in order to be able to fully participate in the globalized world and becoming adapted to the new forms of labour and production. And, if poverty is defined in terms of lack of well-being or lack of resources to choose a good quality of life, then it is necessary to draw attention to variables such as leisure time availability, citizen security, protection against public and domestic violence, protection in cases of catastrophic situations, etc. (3)

Perceptions of poverty

According to Vandana Shiva (4), poverty perceived as such from a cultural perspective, needs not to be real material poverty: sustenance economies which satisfy basic needs through self-provisioning are not poor in the sense of being deprived. However, the ideology of development declares them so because they do not overwhelmingly participate in the market economy, and do not consume commodities produced for and distributed through the market even though they might be satisfying those needs through self-provisioning mechanisms..

Two economic myths facilitate a separation between two intimately linked processes: the growth of affluence and the growth of poverty. Firstly, growth is only regarded as growth of capital. What goes unperceived is the destruction of nature and people's sustenance economy that is created by this growth. The two simultaneously created growth 'externalities' - environmental destruction and poverty creation - are then casually linked, not to growth processes, but to each other. It is stated that poverty causes environmental destruction. The disease is then offered as a cure: growth will solve the problems of poverty and environmental crisis it has given rise to in the first place.

The second myth that separates affluence from poverty is the assumption that if you produce what you consume, you do not produce. This is the basis on which production boundaries are drawn for national accounting bodies that measure economic growth.

Both myths contribute to the mystification of growth and consumerism, but they also hide the real processes that create poverty. People do not die for the lack of incomes. They die for the lack of access to resources.

(1) Based on "Some comments on country-to-country poverty comparisons" by Andrea Vigorito, Social Watch
(2) Amartya Sen, Nobel prize Laureate in Economics. His ideas have prompted an unconventional agenda in economics, with revolutionary contributions to key areas such as poverty measurement, studies on inequality, causes of famine and traditional visions of development.
(3) Karina Batthyány, Mariana Cabrera, Daniel Macadar: "La pobreza y la desigualdad en América Latina".
(4) Vandana Shiva, en “How to end poverty”.
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Friday, November 19 2010
Haiti 2010: Exploiting disaster
(Source: Pambazuka)
Wednesday, June 16 2010
Measuring human well-being beyond GDP
(Source: Urban Institute)

Measurement and commitments

Social Watch Report 2005: "Roars and whispers" (Social Watch)

Measuring human well-being beyond GDP (Urban Institute)

Global distribution of poverty (Earth Institute)

Poverty is not a statistic (IPS)

From poverty eradication towards diminishing inequality (Social Watch)

What the social development indicators say

Unkept promises

What are we talking about when we talk about poverty?

Some comments on country-to-country poverty comparisons

Social Watch

Multiple dimensions of poverty

Paraguay: Poor people pay much more taxes than the rich

Farm suicides in India: a 12-year saga (India Together)

The poverty of rights - human rights and the eradication of poverty (CROP)

From poverty to power (OXFAM International)

The right to not be poor (Social Watch)

Poverty and inequality, a question of rights (Social Watch)

Growth isn't working: the uneven distribution of benefits and costs from economic growth (New Economics Foundation)

Human Rights and poverty reduction: a conceptual framework (United Nations Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights)

Poverty mapping

Amartya Sen and the thousand faces of poverty

The dimensions of poverty (Social Watch)

Nature: poor people’s wealth (Friends of Earth International)

The policies of international institutions

IMF and WB long-term development strategies (Choike)

Misery institutions (Planeta Portoalegre)

Judge and jury: the World Bank’s scorecard for borrowing governments (Citizens’ Network on Essential Services)

United Nations

UN report on extreme poverty and human rights (UN)

Draft guiding principles on extreme poverty and human rights (NGLS)

United Nations Population Fund - UNFPA

United Nations Developmente Fund for Women - UNIFEM

UN Millennium Development Goals - MDGs

United Nations Development Programme - UNDP

MDG-based PRSPs need more ambitious economic policies (PNUD)

UN Economic and Social Council - ECOSOC

Perceptions of poverty

Disappearing the poor (Guardian)

Combating inequality in Africa (Africa Renewal)

How to end poverty: making poverty history and the history of poverty (Znet)

Giving till it heals (Project Syndicate)

Women and poverty

Let the women speak! and listen (Pambazuka)

Budgeting for women's rights (United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM))

Poverty, gender and human trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa

The accumulated effects of inequality (Social Watch India)

Gender and poverty: a case of entwined inequalities (Social Watch)

Gender and poverty (UNDP)

Aid policies

Haiti 2010: Exploiting disaster (Pambazuka)

Western humanitarianism or neo-slavery? (Black Star News)

Western adoptions of African children (Radio Netherland)

Bye-bye to Blair, Brown, Bob and Bono, the B stars in poverty pornography (Pambazuka)

A free lunch? Aid as business (Inside Indonesia)

Aid dependence and the MDGs (Pambazuka)

Real aid: an agenda for making aid work (Action Aid)

Behind the image: Poverty and 'development pornography' (Pambazuka)

The G8 Summit 2005 (Choike)

Welcome to the aid business (Open Democracy)

Points of view

Africa, geology and the march of the development technocrats (Pambazuka)

Help the poor or learn from them? (Americas Policy Program, Center for International Policy (CIP))

World public finances and global income inequality

The persistent confusion between growth and development (Americas Program)

Development, poverty and security : treacherous concepts and proposals for alternatives (NIGD)

A leaking ship: The role of debt, aid and trade (Pambazuka)

Has globalization eased global poverty? (IBON Features)

From top-down to bottom-up anti-poverty work (Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban)

My image of Africa

The imperial tradition

Choike is a project of the Third World Institute
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