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Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP)

Understanding Poverty

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In recent years, international and (to a lesser extent) national development discourse in developing countries has focused strongly on the goal of poverty reduction. This focus is embodied most clearly in the UN Millennium Development Goals, which are accompanied by targets for combating various dimensions of poverty by 2015. Government departments, international development agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are expected to design policies and to plan interventions with a clear understanding of how these will contribute to poverty reduction objectives in the areas concerned.

This module is aimed at students and researchers from the academic world and at development practitioners – from government departments, international development agencies, NGOs or private business – who are involved in the design of policy or interventions to combat poverty in developing countries. The module focuses on rural areas, where the majority of the world’s poor are found, a pattern which is expected to continue at least until 2015. It aims to provide a sound understanding of the causes and consequences of poverty, of trends in poverty reduction across continents and regions of the world, of debates as to the drivers of these trends, and of national and international policies to address problems of poverty. As a result of studying this course, students will be equipped to understand how development interventions and processes impact on poor people and to assess critically the policies and interventions to combat poverty.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

Module Aims
  • To present the multiple dimensions of poverty and how they can be measured.
  • To explore the dynamics and causes of poverty at individual and household level.
  • To compare recent trends in poverty reduction across continents and regions and to examine competing explanations for the observed trends.
  • To examine critically the national and international policy architecture for poverty reduction.
Module Learning Outcomes
  • To compare and contrast approaches to measuring poverty and to explain why the approach used to measure poverty matters.
  • To examine critically competing explanations for the observed trends in poverty reduction across continents and regions.
  • To understand how development interventions and processes impact on poor people.
  • To assess critically policies and interventions to combat poverty.

Scope and syllabus

The module is structured in three parts. The first five units explain why poverty reduction is central to international development efforts and provide a conceptual framework for thinking about poverty. The next four units consider national policy architecture for poverty reduction, and then review available evidence on trends in poverty and the key factors accounting for these trends. In the last part, each student chooses one of three separate units analysing the experience of poverty and poverty reduction in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Part I: An introductory unit traces the evolution in developing thinking that has brought us to the current focus on poverty reduction and also considers the relationship between economic growth and poverty reduction. Unit 2 presents competing definitions of poverty, considers conceptual and practical (measurement) challenges associated with each and asks whether it matters what definition of poverty we use. Unit 3 begins with the sustainable livelihoods framework and considers poverty dynamics: how and why people fall into poverty and/or get stuck in it. Whilst Unit 3 focuses on household assets as an important determinant of poverty status, Unit 4 introduces social relationships and discrimination, and explores how these interact with economic factors to produce multidimensional poverty. This unit also considers the particular challenges faced by remote or ‘less favoured’ areas (which may experience both geographic and social exclusion). Finally, the linkages between poverty and the environment are explored in Unit 5. This unit highlights the dependence of many poor households on natural capital, considers how population growth interacts with environmental management and poverty, and considers climate change as a huge evolving shock that will impact the livelihoods of millions of poor households.

Part II: Unit 6 takes a critical look at poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs), which are at the heart of a new approach by donor agencies to frame their relationships with developing countries. It presents PRSPs as a ‘second best’ approach where domestic political drive for growth and poverty reduction is considered weak, and explores the difficulties inherent in any aid-led effort to influence domestic policy-making processes. The next unit presents available evidence on trends in poverty across countries and continents, after which Units 8 and 9 look in more detail at the key factors that are driving these trends.

Part III: The module ends with three regionally differentiated units - covering Africa, Asia and Latin America - from which each student chooses one. Each unit examines the causes of poverty, trends in poverty and explanations for these observed trends in the region in question, taking into account common characteristics of the region, but also recognising and learning from heterogeneity between and within countries in the region.

Module sample

P519 module uses a core text which is specially written and will take you through your self-directed study. Exercises, assignments and other activities, such as self-assessment questions, film clips and animations are included to help you with learning. Most module study guides are now provided in electronic format on a USB flash memory stick, but can also be downloaded from the online learning environment. Click the linked image below to view a sample of our e-study guide: