Definition of poverty

Clarity on the definition of poverty is important as this will help determine the actions to tackle it.  Among others, the European Union, World Bank and United Nations have published definitions based on their understandings which are in the main characterized by the deprivation of basic physical human needs.  Within these categories are levels of poverty severity, including: extreme; absolute; and relative.


Poverty has various manifestations, including lack of income and productive resources sufficient to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments; and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also characterized by a lack of participation in decision-making and in civil, social and cultural life. It occurs in all countries: as mass poverty in many developing countries, pockets of poverty amid wealth in developed countries, loss of livelihoods as a result of economic recession, sudden poverty as a result of disaster or conflict, the poverty of low-wage workers, and the utter destitution of people who fall outside family support systems, social institutions and safety nets. Women bear a disproportionate burden of poverty, and children growing up in poverty are often permanently disadvantaged. Older people, people with disabilities, indigenous people, refugees and internally displaced persons are also particularly vulnerable to poverty. Furthermore, poverty in its various forms represents a barrier to communication and access to services, as well as a major health risk, and people living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of disasters and conflicts. Absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to social services. (United Nations 2000,Ch2, Sect19) 


The poor shall be taken to mean persons, families and groups of persons whose resources (material, cultural and social) are so limited as to exclude them from the minimum acceptable way of life in the member states in which they live. (EC 1984)


Poor people live without fundamental freedoms of action and choice that the better-off take for granted.  They often lack adequate food and shelter, education and health, deprivations that keep them from leading the kind of life that everyone values.  They also face extreme vulnerability to ill health, economic dislocation, and natural disasters.  And they are often exposed to ill treatment by institutions of the state and society and are powerless to influence key decisions affecting their lives. These are all dimensions of poverty. (The World Bank 2001, p1)


Indicators have largely been along economic and physical lines – in the simplest terms, those living on US$1 for extreme poverty and US$2 for absolute poverty: which together cover about half the world’s population.  Indicators are important, because success or failure in the fight against poverty is measured against them.


Clearly the above holds a logical validity within the definitions and parameters set and has guided and served aid agencies over many years.  However, thinking outside such definitions and parameters, it fails to explain or at least address the situation found in some cases whereby “poor” people may not themselves say they are or feel poor, and conversely, when the “non-poor” say they are or feel poor:  it does not explain the times when “poor” people appear at harmony and content with what little they have, and when the “non-poor” experience discord and feel discontented.  Furthermore, it doesn’t acknowledge the situation whereby when the “poor” are lifted out of poverty, it is often accompanied by an increase in inequality at a national level (United Nations 2007, p8) or it fails to address aspects of discord within a community or problems regarding poor governance, corruption, quests for power at the expense of others and so forth.


Rather than just take the traditional economic and physical approach to poverty, this paper looks at a more integral or holistic approach.  An integral approach includes the building of relationships between people at all levels of society, on the basis that if people genuinely care for one another, then poverty will be tackled as an outcome.  If people’s actions are motivated by the care for one another, by selfless actions then good governance will result, fair policies will be developed and implemented, healthy communities will grow.  Such a perspective doesn’t exclude physical actions in the areas of food security, health, education, and so forth, rather it complements it.  Such an approach will also help tackle problems such as the breakdown of family life and communities – the integrity of which is seen by many as essential in combating poverty.


Taking an integral approach will determine a set of additional actions over and above that of the traditional approach.  There is an interest in people as a people, rather than simply people in terms of their financial or physical circumstances.  An integral approach will embrace many aspects of traditional poverty reduction efforts – complementing such efforts and helping make them complete.


An integral approach from a Christian perspective centres on the Biblical narrative – that people are on a journey, participating in building a just and fair world here on earth now to tackle deprivation in all its forms so that humans may flourish, that every person may enjoy fullness of life, which will be brought to completion at the end of time – the eschaton.  The journey is very relational in nature, building relations with God, and with one another.  Such a Christian perspective has many relational and end time aspects that are common in other faiths, but are generally excluded from a secular traditional approach.



Root cause of poverty

In 2002, a UK and Ireland Christian non-government organization, Tearfund, outlined its understanding of poverty in an internal document Paths out of Poverty (Tearfund 2002).  It looked at the cause of poverty from a Christian perspective and concluded it stemmed from a breakdown of relationships between people and God, between one another, and between people and the environment.

Broken Relationships as the Cause of Poverty

Humans falling into sin


Broken relationship with God


Lack of recognition of accountability to God and hence responsibility to others


Unrighteous and selfish attitudes, actions and values (greed, envy…)


Broken relationships with others and environment


Inequity, injustice, oppression, prejudice, discrimination, corruption & poor governance, richer ignoring the poorer…




(adapted from Tearfund 2002, p6)



The above chain of events is not to say that poor people are poor through sin in their lives, it is not to say that the poor are instruments of their own poverty.  Nor is it to be read that rich people are rich because of their righteousness.  Notwithstanding the doctrine of original sin - that all people, rich and poor, are without innocence - a conclusion that can be drawn from the above Cause of Poverty statement is that transgressions by all people, the sacrifice of truth, especially by those in authority, those with resources, results in a lack of responsibility towards others and the environment – often for conscious or unconscious self-gain.


At the end of the day, people are the cause of poverty, and it is people who must change for things to change.  (Myers 1998, p83)


Biblical teaching is clear that the fall has fundamentally damaged human personhood. Our moral agency, the ability to make moral choices freely is disabled, our capability to act in love of God and neighbor is reversed to act selfishly and our capacity to find and follow faith is distorted. Falleness produces opacity we cannot see, recognize God’s work and God’s order. Paul writes in 2 Cor:4.4. That the God of this world has blinded human minds. We do not appreciate the consequences of creational disorder. Truth is not self -evident. Fallen humanity assumes that even truth about persons and communities is self – evident. Declarations of Independence and Rights assume that truth about persons is self-evident. It is not.  Falleness produces incapacity. Paul writes I have the desire to do good but cannot do it (Romans 7: 16). It is incapacity to act for good for the rest and myself though I am convinced of the good. (Samuel 2008, p15)


The distortion of truth for self-gain was eloquently summarized during a sermon about truth and honesty (So 2008):


The greatest problem we have is the distortion of truth for ordinary people.  It brings about a divide – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Where is the truth in the world?  We have match fixing in sport, drug taking in athletics, cheating at games.  Elected officials don’t keep their promises.  Media misrepresent the truth through adverts.  Newspapers feign stories.  In governments, local authorities and businesses, fraud, corruption and bribery are familiar events.  Truth is sacrificed for self gain.  Sincerity is not found in the kingdom of the world.  It can be found in the Kingdom of Jesus.  He is the truth, there is no falsehood.  A man of truth, integrity and uprightness – side with him, not with the world, side with the one where justice and love reign (So 2008)


And outlined in other, but complimentary, manners:


There is a spiritual battle involved in poverty reduction.  Spiritual forces, mediated through human greed and the pursuit of power, are at work to keep people poor, and lie behind many of the unequal structures of our societies.  Corrupt governments and institutions have to be challenged and radically reformed.  Brave people need to stand up against the powerful and supported by prayer. Communities must be built up through love and service.  (Grant 2008, p60)


The poor are poor largely because they live in a network of relationships that do not work for their well-being.  Their relationships with others are often oppressive and disempowering as a result of the non-poor playing god in the lives of the poor.  Their relationship within themselves is diminished and debilitated as a result of the grind of poverty and the feeling of permanent powerlessness.  Their relationship with those they call “other” is experienced as exclusion.  Their relation with their environment is increasingly less productive because poverty leaves no room for caring for the environment.  Their relationship with the God who created them and sustains their life is distorted by an inadequate knowledge of who God is and what God wishes for all humankind.  Poverty is the whole family of our relationships that are not all they can be.  (Myers 1998, p13)


While it is appreciated that some may hold a view that there are multiple causes of poverty, and no single root cause (OCMS Seminar, 16 July 2008), it clearly needs to be an acknowledged that relationships play a critical part in the poverty equation, with some viewing it as the critical part.



Scale of poverty

Whatever source of statistics one may take, the scale of the problem of poverty is evident.  Even those statistics from governments and organizations attempting to promote the results of well-actioned poverty reduction efforts, show alarming figures.  Figures, reflecting the most vulnerable suffering and dying, and widening inequality when economic development does occur.  Women and children are at particular risk with 8 million children dying each year of poverty-related disease, 150 million children suffering from aggravated malnutrition (UNESCO 2005, p2) and a half a million women dying annual from preventable and treatable complications of pregnancy and childbirth (United Nations 2007, p4).


It is appreciated that many of the statistics gathered during this research are dated – albeit often reflecting the latest information from various sources.  Also, as with all statistics, they need to be studied in context with the source and with a variety of qualifiers taken into account. However, without doubt, the statistics listed provide some idea of the magnitude of the challenge facing the world today, facing humankind today.


Guiding many multilateral, bilateral and civil society efforts are the eight United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set in 2000 with a target date of 2015 to achieve.  The goals (United Nations 2008):


1.    Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

2.    Achieve universal primary education

3.    Promote gender equality and empower women

4.    Reduce child mortality

5.    Improve maternal health

6.    Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

7.    Ensure environmental sustainability

8.    Develop a global partnership for development


At the mid-point, 2007 it was clear that the MDG’s would not all be achievable, without a massive scaling up of efforts.  According to a UN report (United Nations 2007, p7), while progress has been made, almost 1 billion people (2004 figures) are still living in extreme poverty, with the headline news that the “the poorest are getting a little less poor in most regions”.  The report admitted that key challenges remained, in particular (United Nations 2007, p4,5):


·         Over half a million women still die each year from treatable and preventable complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The odds that a woman will die from these causes in sub-Saharan Africa are 1 in 16 over the course of her lifetime, compared to 1 in 3,800 in the developed world.


·         If current trends continue, the target of halving the proportion of underweight children will be missed by 30 million children, largely because of slow progress in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.


·         The number of people dying from AIDS worldwide increased to 2.9 million in 2006, and prevention measures are failing to keep pace with the growth of the epidemic. In 2005, more than 15 million children had lost one or both parents to AIDS.


·         Half the population of the developing world lack basic sanitation. In order to meet the MDG target, an additional 1.6 billion people will need access to improved sanitation over the period 2005-2015. If trends since 1990 continue, the world is likely to miss the target by almost 600 million people.


·         To some extent, these situations reflect the fact that the benefits of economic growth in the developing world have been unequally shared. Widening income inequality is of particular concern in Eastern Asia, where the share of consumption of the poorest people declined dramatically between 1990 and 2004.


·         Most economies have failed to provide employment opportunities to their youth, with young people more than three times as likely as adults to be unemployed.


·         Warming of the climate is now unequivocal. Emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary contributor to global climate change, rose from 23 billion metric tons in 1990 to 29 billion metric tons in 2004. Climate change is projected to have serious economic and social impacts, which will impede progress towards the MDGs.


A more recent report issued by the World Bank, entitled “The developing world is poorer than we thought, but no less successful in the fight against poverty” revises the UN figure of below 1 billion people living in extreme poverty to 1.4 billion people or one quarter of the population of the developing world.

The paper presents a major overhaul to the World Bank’s past estimates of global poverty, incorporating new and better data.  Extreme poverty – as judged by what “poverty” means in the world’s poorest countries – is found to be more pervasive than we thought (Chen 2008, abstract).


Where poverty reduction has been achieved, it has been accompanied by rising inequality.  The benefits of economic growth in the developing world have been unequally shared, both within and among countries (United Nations 2007, p8).  Three billion receive 1.2% of the world’s resources while one billion people living in rich countries receive 80%.  A familiar story of the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer.


A useful source of poverty statistics, bringing together various sources can be found at www.globalissues.org  (Shah 2008).



Financial resources to combat poverty

The various figures available on the additional amount of financial resources required to eradicate poverty tend to be in accord with one another – with estimates of around an additional $60billion to $80 billion a year.


  • The UN (United Nations 1997) gives an estimate in the order of $80 billion additional financial resources annually to provide basic social services to all developing countries.


  • The World Bank (Devarajan 2002, p29) gives an upper figure of $76 billion as the annual additional cost to achieve the social goals of poverty eradication in the areas of health, education and the environment. 


  • Brown, in an Earth Policy Institute document (Brown 2006) cites different sources to Devarajan (other than using World Bank education figures) and arrives at a similar figure:


Additional Annual Funding Needed to Reach Basic Social Goals (Brown 2006, p140)



$U.S. billions

Closing the condom gap



Eradication of adult illiteracy



Assistance to preschool children and pregnant women in 44 poorest countries


School lunch programs for 44 poorest countries



Reproductive health and family planning



Universal primary education



Universal basic health care







There are generally a number of qualifiers for these figures and various conditions for success to come about, including: a need for a variety of policy reforms at international and national levels.  Moreover there is an assumption that forces which often generate poverty or keep the poorest poor are addressed – forces such as individual and corporate corruption, human greed, and the quest for power.


To put the annual $80 billion a year upper figure for poverty eradication into perspective, it is useful to compare it with spending in other areas:


What the world prioritizes spend on

Approx year of data


$U.S. Billions

Cosmetics in the USA (UNDP 1998, p37)




Ice cream in Europe (UNDP 1998, p37)




Perfumes in Europe and USA (UNDP 1998, p37)




Spend on pets in USA (APPMA 2006)




Alcoholic drinks in Europe (Anderson 2006, p47)




EC farm subsidies (Brown 2006, p137)




Global military spend (Stalenheim, 2007)






Anderson, P. & Baumberg, B. (2006)  Alcohol in Europe: a public health perspective.  London. Institute of Alcohol Studies.


APPMA (2006) Pet spending at all time high.  Available at http://www.appma.org/press_releasedetail.asp?id=84 (last accessed 2 July 2008)


Brown, L.R. (2006) Plan B2.0 rescuing a planet under stress and a civilisation in trouble.  New York, W.W. Norton and Co.  Available at http://www.earth-policy.org/Books/PB2/Contents.htm (last accessed 1 July 2008)


Stalenheim, P., Perdomo, C. & Skons, E.  (2007) “Chapter 8. Military expenditure”.  In Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2007)  SIPRI Yearbook 2007: armaments, disarmament and international security.  Oxford University Press.  Available at http://yearbook2007.sipri.org/chap8 (last accessed 1 July 2008)


UNDP (1998) Human Development Report.  New York, Oxford.  Oxford University Press



Moreover, a startling set of facts and figures have recently been released from a UK government-supported report on domestic food wasted in UK households (WRAP 2008).  A staggering £10 billion (US$16 billion) of food is thrown away by UK households each year!  A sum of money that could sustain poverty reduction efforts beyond the hope of most governments and aid agencies.  Indeed, if such wastage figures are indicative of other Western nations, then without doubt with just the utilization of savings in this one area – food we waste domestically - financial resources are potential available to eradicate poverty worldwide without any additional monetary demand on the people of the Western world or reduction in their living standards.  Just a simple requirement for all responsible citizens to plan better the amount of food they buy and steward it well.





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