July 01, 2024

As the UK General Election looms, can the FCDO measure extreme poverty better?

Disability Inclusive Graduation participant in Uganda © BRAC, Robert Irven

This blog is authored by Joe Brammer, Partnerships Manager (Bilaterals) at BRAC UK. 

Since the sudden announcement that the UK General election will take place on July 4th 2024, many development practitioners have been looking ahead and wondering what the government’s future plans will be for the sector. Only recently, in November last year, the FCDO clearly outlined its aspirations when it published the cross-Party White Paper on International Development – ‘International development in a contested world: ending extreme poverty and tackling climate change’. The document was significant as White Papers outline the strategy of a given department for years to come, with the last one for international development released in 2009. The new White Paper received significant Cross-party contributions which were designed to outlast any sudden elections, such as the one just called. At its publication, the renewed focus on extreme poverty and climate change was applauded by several development organisations, including, the Institute of Development Studies, Bond, and BRAC itself. However, with the election looming, and even with its cross-party support, it remains unclear whether this commitment to eradicating extreme poverty will remain following election day. 


Yet, now more than ever, it is vital that extreme poverty remains the central priority for whoever takes office. At the end of 2020, over 700 million people were living in extreme poverty, exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic, which led to the first increase in global poverty in decades. With this in mind, whoever assumes office should use their mandate to double down on the White Paper’s commitments to end extreme poverty. This can be done by refining and improving how the FCDO is currently defining extreme poverty, to create a more accurate definition that is conducive to more effective and impactful programming. 


Reading the current White Paper, it is clear that the FCDO is using the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty (someone who is living on less than $2.15 per day, citing an estimated 700 million people living in such a state globally. However, BRAC knows that poverty is multidimensional and not based on income alone. People living in extreme poverty face multiple reinforcing barriers – a lack of nutrition, education, resources and skills needed to develop a sustainable livelihood. Extreme poverty also involves psychological and social dimensions, including disempowerment and social exclusion, which contribute to a deficit of hope and self-confidence. This means that even when essential services, such as healthcare and education, are made available, those in extreme poverty struggle to access them due to stigmatisation. As such, those facing extreme poverty require direct outreach and continued support to ensure inclusion to such services, so that they can begin their journey in escaping the poverty trap


Moreover, the complexities of extreme poverty are vast. Those facing extreme poverty might be asset rich, possessing livestock or agriculture, but financially destitute by having no route to market for their assets to earn an income. Likewise, they might be physically healthy, but face serious mental health issues due to prolonged periods of stress from financial constraints, insecure housing, or climate anxieties. The dimensions of extreme poverty are thus varied, and to make genuine progress on addressing the issue, it must be defined in a holistic, multidimensional way that tackles each component of extreme poverty, rather than solely focusing on income. 


That is not to dismiss the importance of income. We know that cash plays a fundamental role in addressing extreme poverty. Rather, extreme poverty must be understood in a multidimensional manner to create programmes that address its myriad of components. In doing so, we engender mult-idimensional programming which delivers longer-term sustainable impact and resilience when compared to piecemeal approaches, such as cash alone. For example, BRAC’s graduation approach, a multifaceted set of interventions designed to address the complex nature of extreme poverty, has been shown to have  greater long-term impacts, and affects a broader range of household outcomes, including increased assets, income, nutrition, and a sense of well-being. Indeed, research shows that if people in the poverty trap received a multifaceted “big push” that addressed multiple constraints, they could move into more productive forms of employment and build a long-term pathway out of poverty. 

In fact, I have recently experienced first-hand how a definition of poverty that focuses solely on income can be limiting. During a visit to BRAC’s Disability Inclusive Graduation Programme in Tanzania, I was struck by how participants described their situations. Poverty was not simply a lack of income, but an intersection of multiple, complex factors, such as societal standing, a lack of community support and access to shared resources, and a strong sense of helplessness. Disability, all too often overlooked in development practice, was also a missing puzzle piece that would not be captured in an income centric definition of poverty. 

Fundamentally, in using the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty the UK’s 2023 International Development White Paper fails to accurately describe the very issue it pledges to solve. There is a clear need for the FCDO to move from a siloed, income-centric definition of extreme poverty which currently fails to address poverty holistically. Indeed, the palpable lack of progress on extreme poverty globally, as shown by the fact that the world is currently unlikely to meet SDG 1’s ambition of ending extreme poverty by 2030, can in part be explained due to a dependency on reductionist interventions that have not delivered impact. Moving forward, if whoever assumes political office in the UK on the 4th of July is serious about eradicating extreme poverty, they must adopt a more suitable, multi-dimensional definition to accurately measure and create programmes capable of addressing extreme poverty.