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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
  • Compare and contrast approaches to measuring poverty and to explain why the approach used to measure poverty matters.
  • Critically examine competing explanations for the observed trends in poverty reduction across continents and regions.
  • Understand how development interventions and processes impact on poor people.
  • Critically assess policies and interventions to combat poverty.

Scope and syllabus

The module is broadly structured in two parts. The first six units explain why poverty reduction is now so central to international development efforts and provide a conceptual framework for thinking about poverty. The remaining four units review available evidence on trends in poverty around the world and the key factors accounting for these trends.

Part I: An introductory unit traces the evolution in development 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). 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. Finally, Unit 6 considers how the exercise of power affects poverty, given that powerlessness is often cited by poor people themselves as a key feature of the experience of being poor. It considers the conditions under which political leaders are likely to pursue pro-poor policies and takes a critical look at poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs), which are at the heart of the current approach on the part of donor agencies to their relationships with low income countries.

Part II: Unit 7 presents available evidence on trends in poverty across countries and continents, after which Units 8-10 look in more detail at the key factors that are driving these trends. Unit 8 explores the determinants of trends in consumption poverty. Unit 9 looks at hunger and also considers the particular role of agricultural growth in poverty reduction. Unit 10 concludes by considering drivers of observed trends in capability poverty.

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: