SOAS University of London

Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP)

Understanding Poverty (30 credits)

30 credits

Within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the eradication of extreme poverty and the reduction of poverty as defined in other ways remain central objectives of national and international development efforts. As with the Millennium Development Goals before them, the SDGs recognise that poverty has multiple dimensions and that progress is needed on a number of fronts (economic, social and political) if poverty is to be effectively tackled.

This module is aimed 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 low- or middle-income countries. It aims to provide a sound understanding of the nature of poverty, its causes and consequences, of trends in poverty reduction across low and middle income countries, and of debates as to the drivers of these trends.

The module encompasses economic, social and political perspectives and examines the interaction of diverse factors in producing and reproducing poverty. There is an emphasis within the module on assisting students to gain a rigorous and critical understanding of key concepts used in international poverty debates, and on showing how the definitions of poverty that we use affect our findings regarding both poverty incidence and poverty trends, and hence also the policies prescribed to tackle poverty.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • demonstrate a rigorous and critical understanding of key concepts used in international poverty debates. This includes practical issues of measurement as well as definition;
  • analyse both the proximate and deeper factors that trap people in poverty or assist them to escape poverty;
  • critically examine trends in poverty reduction in low and middle income countries, as shown by alternative poverty measures;
  • critically examine international paradigms and architecture for poverty reduction policies.


Students are advised to dedicate 15 - 20 hours study time per week for this module.

Scope and syllabus

The module will comprise 15 units:

  1. Poverty and Social Norms
  2. Money-Metric Measures of Poverty
  3. Multi-Dimensional Poverty Measures
  4. Poverty and Economic Development
  5. Growth, Inequality and Poverty
  6. Poverty Dynamics
  7. Social Differentiation and Poverty: Conceptual Frameworks
  8. Social Differentiation and Poverty: Gender, Age and Disability
  9. Poverty and the Environment
  10. Power, Politics and Governance
  11. Trends in Monetary Poverty and Hunger
  12. Urban Poverty
  13. Explaining Trends in Capability Poverty
  14. Aid and Poverty Reduction
  15. The Sustainable Development Goals

Method of assessment

This module is assessed by:

  • a 500-word commentary and critical discussion on a key reading, and assessment of the commentaries of two other students (10%)
  • a 3000-word examined assignment (EA), with an element of online interaction and discussion, worth 40%
  • a two-hour written examination worth 50%.

Since the EA is an element of the formal examination process, please note the following:

  • The EA questions and submission date will be available on the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).
  • The EA is submitted by uploading it to the VLE.
  • The EA is marked by the module tutor and students will receive a percentage mark and feedback.
  • Answers submitted must be entirely the student’s own work and not a product of collaboration.
  • Plagiarism is a breach of regulations. To ensure compliance with the specific University of London regulations, all students are advised to read the guidelines on referencing the work of other people. For more detailed information, see the FAQ on the VLE.

Suggested reading

Collier, P. (2007) The Bottom Billion. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Ruggeri Laderchi, C., Saith, R. & Stewart, F. (2003) Does it matter that we do not agree on the definition of poverty? A comparison of four approaches. Oxford Development Studies, 31 (3), 243–274

Alkire, S. & Santos, M. (2010) Acute Multidimensional Poverty: A New Index for Developing Countries. Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford. OPHI Working Paper, pp. 6–26, 30–35

Bourguignon, F. (2004) The poverty-growth-inequality triangle. Presented at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. 4 February 2004, New Delhi. pp. 1–26

De Weerdt, J. (2010) Moving out of poverty in Tanzania: evidence from Kagera. Journal of Development Studies, 46 (2), 331–349

Stewart, F. & Langer, A. (2008) Horizontal inequalities: explaining persistence and change. In: Stewart, F. (Ed.) Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict: Understanding Group Violence in Multiethnic Societies. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 54–82

Timmer P (2009) A World without Agriculture: The Structural Transformation in Historical Perspective.

Washington DC, The AEI Press, pp. 1–36.

Mitlin, D. & Satterthwaite, D. (2013) Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature. London and New York, Routledge. pp. 278–303

Lewin, K.M. (2009) Access to education in sub-Saharan Africa: patterns, problems and possibilities. Comparative Education, 45 (2), 151–174

Peters, H., Garg, A., Bloom, G., Walker, D.G., Brieger, W.R. & Rahman, M.H. (2008) Poverty and access to health care in developing countries. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1136 (1), 161–171


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules