As I said in a previous post, I recently finished reading a review paper titled “Poverty, Development, and Biodiversity Conservation: Shooting in the Dark?” by Agrawal and Redford, 2006 (see below for full citation). This paper examined contradictions between theoretical and empirical (or case-study based) studies of poverty and biodiversity and reviewed articles that aimed to ameliorate both via three common strategies.
This paper explained that there is a huge variety of ways to perceive, analyze, and study poverty, and that studies that focus on conservation and poverty alleviation often fail to acknowledge the theoretical complexity of defining and understanding poverty. Further, I was flabbergasted by their explanation of poverty being a modern phenomenon. So, they wonder, how can you attempt to alleviate poverty if you are being lazy about how you define it, conceptualize it, and measure it? And how can you compare studies if nobody has quite the same understanding of poverty?
Agrawal and Redford explain that the relatively recent appearance of writings pertaining to the poor hint that modern society permits poverty to exist, and also indicate a conviction that poverty can at least be substantially reduced, if not eradicated. Public assistance legislation, known as the Poor Laws, passed between the 17th and 19th centuries in Britain raised basic questions about poverty that global society still wrestles with. How do we define the poor? How do we determine the feasibility of assisting them? How does one in a state of poverty qualify for assistance? The Poor Laws were associated with the idea that public support can only be available to those in extreme need. This has evolved into a commonly accepted idea today, that all humans have equal rights to some minimal level of consumption.
Since then, Agrawal and Redford show that poverty programs have expanded in scope, paralleled by expansions in state bureaucracies and other organizations. Over the past century, there has been a great deal of conceptual refinement in the way we think of poverty, including the idea of a “line” of poverty, beyond which people cease to be poverty-stricken. Since the 1970s, in particular, poverty has come to include aspects unrelated to income, such as longevity, literacy, health, vulnerability, exposure to risk, lack of voice, and lack of opportunities. Consequently, there has been a shift in the battle against poverty of attempting to conquer more than low income.
There are many aspects of poverty we have yet to understand before we can attempt to mitigate it, however. Agrawal and Redford point out that the many dimensions of poverty are certainly not independent of one another, but we lack an adequate metric system of measuring them, determining direct cause-and-effect relationships, and establishing equivalence between them. For example, do so many years less of an education equal that many years of reduction in income? One immediate consequence of this colossal problem is that we don’t know which aspects of poverty reduction programs should receive greater emphasis in given contexts.
I’ll keep discussing this paper in the future, so look out for it! I’m still not done discussing Agrawal and Redford’s discussion of poverty, and I haven’t even touched what they have to say about biodiversity yet…
Agrawal, A. and Redford, K. H. (2006). Poverty, development, and biodiversity conservation: Shooting in the Dark? Wildlife Conservation Society Working Paper, 26, 1-48.