Sustaining Pathways out of Extreme Poverty

Above: Researchers present poverty dynamics at the national level in Nepal, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ethiopia.

How can civil society and governments support households who are beginning to leave poverty behind so that they never again fall below the poverty line? This question was the focus of an event on 6 February hosted by the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network (CPAN) at London’s Overseas Development Institute where ATD Fourth World was invited to react to new research.

CPAN’s research on “Understanding and supporting sustained pathways out of extreme poverty” addresses the “disturbing trend in countries like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania [where] a significant proportion of rural households that escaped poverty fell back into it during the following 8 to 10 years”. Its country case studies in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Nepal, Bangladesh and Uganda, some of which are available here, aim to show the conditions that have allowed, or failed to allow, a sustained escape from poverty.

CPAN invited reflections on the policy implications of this research from the UK’s Department for International Development, BRAC UK, the ONE campaign, and ATD Fourth World. Speaking for ATD, Diana Skelton appreciated recommendations made about empowerment, rather than dependency, and about mentoring. However, she also had several concerns:

“In Kenya, it is proposed that beneficiaries of social protection be required to engage in public works or training programmes. This kind of conditionality has long been required in countries like the UK—with negative results. In The New Poverty, Stephen Armstrong shows how impossible it has become for a jobseeker in Britain to qualify for benefits when, for example, they must apply for a minimum of 24 jobs a week via a website but can’t afford transportation to a public library often enough to wait their turn for internet access. The top-down design of conditionality can shut out the very people who are the most in need of protection. It is important to be careful that social protection not become a tool for monitoring, judging, and controlling people. The process of qualifying for benefits has been shown in some countries to create a sense of powerlessness that humiliates people as well as undermining their own strength.

“The CPAN studies show awareness of how delicate it is to challenge social norms such as gender discrimination. In some countries, the opportunity to change a social norm was connected to social protection as an opportunity for messaging (as in Kenya on the issue of family planning or in Nepal on other health and education issues). Anything connected to social protection will necessarily be seen as top-down, which can make it ineffective or even cause unintended harm.

“Work on social norms needs to be rooted in the power differential faced by people in extreme poverty. This is perpetuated by societal attitudes of shaming and stereotyping. Robert Walker of Oxford has shown that poverty continues to be considered shameful in countries as diverse as Uganda, Britain, India, Pakistan, Norway, South Korea, and China. This shaming and prejudice undermines people’s strength and resilience, preventing them from overcoming poverty. People in poverty stress the emotional and relational components of poverty as major factors. They speak not only of ‘social mistreatment’ by better-off neighbours, but also of ‘systemic bullying’, where some institutions really beat down people living in poverty.

Regularly experiencing anxiety, fear, humiliation, exclusion, and feelings of inferiority eats away at people’s sense of self-worth.

This is worsened by the fact that they are almost never able to collaborate in the design, implementation, and evaluation of the anti-poverty programmes meant to benefit them.

“The CPAN studies have also used the term ‘escape from poverty’. The concept of ‘escaping’ can suggest that people are leaving behind every aspect of poverty; but people in poverty sometimes say how much they value their life experience and hard-won knowledge. While the goal of supporting sustained escapes is of course a positive one, I have not heard people in poverty use the word ‘escape’—which suggests fleeing a disaster as quickly as possible. This image can even create an obstacle to overcoming poverty. For instance, children who manage to succeed in school where their parents failed, or a teenage girl whose training allows her to earn more money than her father can sometimes feel that they need to hold themselves back in order not to betray their families by escaping on their own. Because relationships are crucial factors in people’s efforts to overcome poverty, it is important that people who do manage to improve their living situations try to help others. A series of escapes sounds individual; but the shaming and stereotyping of people in poverty have to be addressed collectively by society as a whole. The words that members of ATD Fourth World more often choose are borrowed from the collective struggle of the civil rights movement: ‘We shall overcome someday.’”

ATD is committed to evaluating development with the input of people that programs target. Challenge 2015 (links to free pdf download) is an ATD report on the Millennium Development Goals. The participatory research for the report involved more than 2,000 people from 22 countries, a majority of whom were people living in poverty or in extreme poverty. The report includes five recommendations for the post-2015 development agenda. These recommendations reflect the experiences of people who live in poverty and their ideas about improving development programs.

Below: Diana Skelton, at left, was part of a panel discussing the policy implications of a study about “sustained escapes from poverty”.

For a printed copy of Challenge 2015 , ATD’s report on the Millennium Development Goals, please contact

Information on ATD’s participatory research.
Information on ATD’s Post-2015 Development Goals.
Information on ATD’s work in Africa.