Research on New Poverty Characteristics: One Year Report

ATD Fourth World is conducting an original study with Britain’s Oxford University in which people with lived experiences of poverty will participate on an equal footing along with professionals and academics. The objective: to promote highly participatory analytic characteristics of poverty, and to advance global ideas about the nature and measure of these “dimensions” of poverty. Poverty is often defined without consulting those primarily concerned and measured solely according to monetary criteria. A Multidimensional Poverty Indicator (MPI) should replace the extreme poverty indicator of 1.25 dollars per day.

From November 6-11, 2017, the participants in this international study met in seminars at Villaceaux, France. It was an opportunity to evaluate the progress of the work in their respective countries, to view their preliminary results, and to get to know each other better. The three-year study, which includes six countries (Bolivia, the United States, Tanzania, Bangladesh, England, and France), will be completed in June of 2019.

The unique nature of this participant-inclusive study is the role of those in precarious situations of poverty who are expected to be and are recognized as co-researchers. This work is based on the Merging Knowledge method developed by ATD Fourth World 20 years ago. It consists of combining the “experienced based know-how” of people living in poverty, the “professional know-how” of practitioners such as social workers or educators, and the “research know-how” of academics. The goal of this method is to allow those living in poverty to become real partners in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding regarding the most sustainable forms of development.

Seminar participants from different countries involved in the project discussed characteristics of poverty that they found most meaningful.  These dimensions are still quite provisional and will be developed further as the study continues.


Alexie Gasengayire is the project coordinator for Tanzania. She described how the ATD Fourth World team sought out people working in the Dar es Salaam fish market and a stone-breaking quarry to participate in the project.

“It’s not easy to participate in research workshops because you have to make yourself free for two and a half days,” explained a woman who breaks stones in the quarry for a living. “I would really like to go, but I have four children. I might be able to get meals there, but how are [my children] going to eat?”

The ATD team in Tanzania has already defined a number of dimensions of poverty. Among them: “peace”, “ethics”, and “customs and traditions”. “There is nothing we can do when blood flows; those living in poverty are the first victims,” explained Kasian Hilari. Another participant, Asha Athumani, cited prostitution, domestic violence, and the respective roles of women and men in Tanzanian society that all become causes and consequences in the never-ending cycle of poverty.


In Bangladesh, the research team headed toward the southern region of the country on a 14-hour journey followed by a boat ride in order to establish a group that includes “tiger widows”, women who are especially excluded because their husbands were killed by wildcats, explained scholar Akhtaruzzaman Khan.

Populations experiencing extreme poverty live in this region of mangroves, with forests bordering the water, where there are many tigers. Forced by poverty, the men risk their lives to chop wood and fish in this area.

The formation of representative “peer groups” (one for academics, one for practitioners, etc.) large enough to guarantee scientific validity is a significant issue in the Bangladesh research team’s work. However, they have identified eight dimensions thus far.


The French research group has identified 10 dimensions of poverty. At the November seminar, they presented two that seemed to them to be essential. Abdel Benjaballah, an activist who has lived in poverty, emphasized the importance of “experiences and emotions”. This dimension was broken down into 60 characteristics, encompassing all the fears and humiliations of daily life. Marie-Hélène Dufernez, a former social worker, explained, “When we worked as professionals, we realized all the negative feelings of those living in poverty.”

Thanks to discussion with the activist peer group, the dimension “acquired competencies”, emphasized by ATD activist Évelyne Dubois, was established. She described a positive dimension of poverty that people rarely talk about: “We who are living in poverty, we are not stupid. We know what we’re doing. We have acquired competencies: resourcefulness, fighting spirit, survival strategies…but this is never taken into account.”

All the participating countries struggle with a lack of economic resources and the associated consequences, health problems due to poverty, and the emotions experienced by those living in poverty.


Xavier Godinot of ATD Fourth World and Professor Robert Walker of Oxford coordinate the work of the national research teams, in conjunction with an academic advisory board composed of 10 international experts.

“Our first results are promising,” Xavier Godinot explains. “We have emphasized dimensions of poverty absent from traditional indicators. For example, we talk about “systemic bullying” in which some institutions really beat down people living in poverty, “social mistreatment” that often comes from neighbors, and even special competencies acquired by people in poverty, which I would tend to call “resilience”.

In this study, the ATD activists worked extremely hard. There remains some time yet to complete this research. We must consolidate the results and work to distinguish between those dimensions that are universal and those that are country-specific. When the study is finished, we will present our results to the United Nations and to governments of individual countries. In addition, we will make recommendations regarding steps that should be taken to address poverty. Perhaps it will then be necessary to work on new indicators.”

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