When did achieving ‘survival’ become a development goal?

I am lucky – I cannot imagine living on $1.26 a day. My morning latte costs more than that. And I consider my morning latte a basic necessity – with two small children, one who takes hours to get to bed and the other who is up at the crack of dawn, I perceive caffeine is essential to my ability to function as a human being. Granted, if $1.26 meant the difference between my children eating and my coffee, obviously the money would go towards food. But I’m quite certain that would not be enough to cover even the simplest of meals for them – certainly nothing with any nutritional value.

So, I’m not sure how $1.26 became the symbol of differentiating between poverty and extreme poverty. Certainly, expert economists spent significant time and energy trying to determine the minimum amount to ensure survival (keep in mind that $1.26 is adjusted for the cost of living in each country). But as development professionals, are we not aiming for more than mere ‘survival’ with our programmes? Somehow, the idea of eliminating ‘extreme poverty’ as determined by a monetary amount has become the goal without ascertaining if it really makes a difference in the lives of the people we aim to help.

An interesting article in Devex ‘Poor need more than $1.26 a day; collaboration critical to closing the gap,’ (23 June 2015; https://www.devex.com/news/poor-need-more-than-1-26-a-day-collaboration-critical-to-closing-the-gap-86237) told the story of a family of coffee farmers. They have eight children – and despite the back breaking work, they make the equivalent of $0.90 per day per family member. If we consider that a development programme may aim to help lift the family’s income to achieve the $1.26 per family member per day, we would have to ask ourselves: would that make any real difference in their daily lives? Probably not.

The idea of having a numerical value to determine the poverty line is good in theory, but somehow it distorts what we are aiming to actually achieve in practice: a location-specific livable income. With all of the effort that goes into designing programmes, funding them, building partnerships, being accountable and transparent, at the end of the day, the primary goal of the development community is to make sure everyone can, at minimum, survive? If there had been an MDG and SDG equivalent at the time, it sounds like something that Shakespearean-era governments may have aspired to. But it’s 2015 – perhaps we need to reconceive ‘poverty’ and ‘survival.’ Poverty should mean ‘able to just make ends meet’ and still be able to count on accessing decent health care and public education. It shouldn’t mean trying to decide between charging the family’s mobile phone and buying food to serve a simple meal.

I couldn’t say what an appropriate numerical value on determining the extreme poverty line would be. Honestly, I’m not that great with numbers. Then again, if numbers is how we’re going to determine how successful our development programmes are, I should step away from the field. I have an issue with monitoring by numbers: number of families supported, number of textbooks provided, number of malaria kits distributed, number of health clinics built. None of those numbers will tell us if we are improving the quality of life for the people who may benefit. Which brings me to my point: we have to stop measuring ‘poverty’ in numbers and start measuring it by the quality of the life that people are living. Qualitative indicators that can tell us not just whether the family ate today, but whether they ate enough and was it more than just rice. Not just if children are attending school, but the impact that education is having on them. Not just if people have access to health care, but if they actually access it when necessary. And not just if they have shelter, but if that shelter is safe and if they feel safe in it.

I could go on, but the point is, development cannot rely so heavily on numbers. Numbers only tell part of the story and can give us false impressions of achievements that in reality are only achievements on paper but are not contributing to the goal of moving people out of poverty. Numbers will tell us if people are surviving, sure; but they cannot tell us the quality of that ‘survival.’ So we have to ask ourselves is the point of development to simply bring as many people up a standard of living that meets a numerical value, or is it to help people achieve a quality of life that can allow them to leverage what they have into a better future?

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