SOAS University of London

Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP)

Understanding Poverty

Module Code:
P104 (P519)

Within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the eradication of extreme poverty remains a central objective of 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. Government departments, international development agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are thus 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 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 continents and regions of the world, and of debates as to the drivers of these trends.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

Module Aims
  • To present the multiple dimensions of poverty and how they can be measured.
  • To explore both the proximate and deeper factors that trap people in poverty or assist them to escape poverty.
  • To compare trends in poverty reduction across continents and regions and to consider the key factors accounting for these trends.
  • To examine the impact of international interventions and initiatives on efforts to eradicate poverty.

Module Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module, students should be able to:

  • 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 assess the impact of international interventions and initiatives, such as international development assistance and the SDGs, on efforts to eradicate poverty.

Scope and syllabus

The module is broadly structured in two parts. The first seven units provide a conceptual framework for understanding poverty and its causes (both proximate and deeper). The final three units review evidence on trends in poverty at global and regional level and the key factors accounting for these trends.

Part I: The first two units consider what we mean by poverty and how poverty can be measured. The definition of poverty that we use makes a big difference to the number of people who are considered to be poor. Unit 1 examines money-metric definitions of poverty (based primarily on income or consumption levels), considering the strengths, weaknesses and practical measurement challenges associated with each. Basic numeracy skills are required to study this unit. Unit 2 examines multi-dimensional poverty measures in a similar way, along with definitions of poverty generated through participatory exercises with poor people. Unit 3 considers the relationships between economic growth, inequality and poverty reduction. The focus here is on macro-level dynamics, which shape the context in which local and household-level poverty dynamics play out. Unit 4 begins with the sustainable livelihoods framework and considers poverty dynamics at household level: how and why people fall into poverty and/or get stuck in it. Whilst Unit 4 focuses on household assets as an important determinant of poverty status, Unit 5 introduces social relationships and differentiation, and explores how these interact with economic factors to produce multidimensional poverty. The linkages between poverty and the environment are explored in Unit 6. 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 7 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 also takes a critical look at the role of international development assistance (aid) in poverty reduction.

Part II: Unit 8 presents available evidence on trends in monetary poverty and hunger across countries and continents. It also examines debate on the relative incidence of rural versus urban poverty. Projections by the World Bank indicate that the majority of the world’s extreme poor will live in rural areas until at least 2025. However, does the underlying definition of poverty understate the prevalence of urban poverty? Unit 9 considers drivers of observed trends in capability poverty. Finally, Unit 10 examines the SDGs. Drawing on a comparison with the Millennium Development Goals, it considers the process by which they were developed and the content of the goals themselves, so as to consider their potential to contribute to the eradication of extreme poverty in the world by 2030.

Module sample

The 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:

Click to start a demo of (Understanding Poverty)


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