Rethinking human development requires inclusive co-research with communities

People living in poverty need to be associated in rethinking human development. They help make visible dimensions of poverty that are too often invisible in the human development discourse, argues Xavier Godinot, Research Director, International Movement ATD Fourth World.

The ISC is featuring contributions from the global science community on Rethinking Human Development. This is a joint project with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

In the year 2000, the World Bank undertook a study in 50 developing countries. The findings were published in a report entitled “Voices of the poor”, which made the point that “there are 2.8 billion poverty experts, the poor themselves. Yet, the development discourse about poverty has been dominated by the perspectives and expertise of those who are not poor.” It is thus refreshing that, today, there is a new will to build knowledge in a more inclusive manner and to combine different types of knowledge innovatively. The Global Sustainable Development Report 2019, entitled ‘The Future is Now – Science for Achieving Sustainable Development’, reflects this will. The overall report and the chapter on sustainability science, especially, explore how to re-conceptualize sustainable human development.

The report insists that scientists, policymakers, business leaders and civil society must radically rethink their partnerships and create experimental spaces for collaboration that could lead society onto a transformative pathway. Citizen science is a key tool for collaboration. Many sources of knowledge remain untapped and the best research happens when scientists collaborate with the communities that would be the immediate beneficiaries of the research. The report also highlights the need for combining academic knowledge with practical and indigenous knowledge. To ensure success, research partnerships should be based on principles that include joint agenda-setting; building trust; mutual learning; shared ownership; and accountability to beneficiaries.

The report’s recommendations regarding science for sustainable development have been implemented in a research on The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty that was conducted by the International Movement ATD (All Together for Dignity) Fourth World with Oxford University, following the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals. The project sought to combine three different kinds of knowledge: 1) knowledge gained from life experience of people trapped in poverty; 2) knowledge gained by professionals who serve the most deprived people – that is, teachers, healthcare workers, social workers and others; and 3) academic knowledge, which is indispensable but partial.

This research was implemented in six countries: three from the global North (France, the UK and the US) and three from the global South (Bangladesh, Bolivia and Tanzania).  An international coordination team was run by ATD Fourth World and researchers from Oxford University, and national research teams were set up in the six countries. Each of the latter had 9–15 members: 4–6 people with direct experience of poverty and 2–4 academics and practitioners that provided services or advocacy for people in poverty. Experienced core workers from ATD Fourth World supported people living in poverty in ways that enabled their full participation on equal footing with academics and practitioners through the “Merging of Knowledge” approach. This approach is based on a shift in paradigm and in practice: instead of being objects for research and policies designed by others, people in poverty become co-researchers whose intelligence contribute to a common endeavour.

The research questions were: 1) What is poverty? and 2) What are its characteristics? The different types of knowledge resulting from life experience, action and academic research were first built in an independent way through meetings with peer groups. Subjective perceptions of individuals, when discussed and combined in many peer groups that are then merged, result in new collective knowledge with “positional objectivity”, as defined by Amartya Sen. When the positional objectivity of people living in poverty is cross-fertilized with that of practitioners and that of academics, it results in a more comprehensive knowledge with “trans-positional objectivity”, as defined by Sen. For a given country, poverty dimensions from rural and urban areas were combined to yield a single set for that country.

Eventually, 71 dimensions of poverty from six countries were merged during an international “Merging of Knowledge” session. This process led to the identification of nine key dimensions of poverty that, despite differences in the daily life of people in poverty across countries, are surprisingly similar.

Figure: ATD Fourth World – Oxford University diagram of the dimensions of poverty

‘For the first time, the ATD – Oxford University research places a bridge across [the] gulf in the measurement approaches to poverty in rich and poor countries…allowing us to see poverty through a single perspective’

Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the OECD [https://www.spi.ox.ac.uk/article/unveiling-the-hidden-dimensions-of-poverty]

Six of these dimensions were previously hidden or rarely considered in policy discussions. Existing alongside the more familiar privations (green polyhedrons in the diagram) relating to lack of decent work, insufficient and insecure income and material and social deprivation, three dimensions are relational (blue polyhedrons). These draw attention to the way that people who are not confronting poverty affect the lives of those who are: social maltreatment; institutional maltreatment and unrecognised contributions. The three dimensions that constitute the core experience of poverty (red circle and half-circles) place the anguish and agency of people at the centre of the conceptualisation of poverty: suffering in body, mind and heart, disempowerment, and struggle and resistance. These dimensions remind us why poverty must be eradicated. They also drive home that everyone, living in poverty or not, is dehumanised by the continued existence of poverty. All nine dimensions of poverty are closely interdependent and typically, in varying degrees, experienced together, cumulatively.

While every dimension is evident in all countries and most contexts, each varies in form and degree according to: identity with discrimination on grounds such as ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation adding to that associated with poverty; location, urban, peri-urban, rural; timing and duration, short spells differing from long spells, poverty experienced in childhood or in old age varying from that experienced in working age; cultural beliefs, concerning for example, whether poverty is generally thought to be caused by structural factors or by personal failings; and environment and environmental policy, from climate change, soil degradation, pollution and associated policies, to urban deprivation and inadequate public infrastructure.

Why are six of these dimensions of poverty often invisible in the development discourse?  Arlette Farge, a French historian, has revealed how, in other centuries, societies made every effort to deny the suffering of people trapped in poverty because it is disturbing and challenging all those who take advantage of the established order. Economists have also demonstrated this denial: John Kenneth Galbraith has described the many ways of ignoring the worst-off in an article titled “How to get the poor out of sight”. There are many books on empowerment’s capabilities, but the active process of dis-empowerment is rarely made visible. When governments decide not to invest in education so that they can continue to dominate and manipulate their people, this is a type of disempowerment.

The outcomes of the ATD Fourth World/ Oxford University research have been published in a chapter of a book by Springer and in an article of the World Development Journal [Editor’s note: this link has 50 days’ free access]. The hidden dimensions of poverty that emerged from this research point to the need for new indicators and new policy recommendations that should be included in the forthcoming Human Development Report to increase its influence.


Photo: UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré via Flickr.

Xavier Godinot is Research Director at Joseph Wresinski Centre for Poverty Research and History, International Movement ATD Fourth World, France

Cover photo: extract from photo by GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer.

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