Down to the basics: Of Masai, Siberia and Measures of Poverty

According to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eradication of extreme poverty and hunger is the absolute top priority of international development. In fact, the entire set of the eight MDGs is acclaimed for having “galvanized the unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.”[1] The focus on poverty is not surprising nor it is new: All of us who have at least secondary education have heard of the Maslow pyramid and the fact that food, clothes and shelter are the basic human needs — i.e., the bottom of the pyramid of needs. During my short-lived career as a school teacher, I happened to work in several schools in impoverished city districts in Russia and in the US; and I can confirm that it is useless to talk about self-actualization to kids who have not had breakfast that day or those who had to roam the streets looking for a dry spot to sleep on the night before. The focus on poverty is not surprising, it is the right focus.

What is surprising is the approximation of our understanding of ”poverty” not as a concept but as a reality, the approximation that persists despite the decades of hard work on poverty eradication and at least half a dozen of poverty metrics recognized and used world-wide. As a social researcher working in Africa, the hub and the heart of multiple international development initiatives, I have to know my “PPIs” and “DHSs” as well as the ways to triangulate them. Yet more frequently than not, I see cases that do not fit established frameworks, the so-called exceptions. And as my acquaintance with the developing societies and societies in transition is growing more and more intimate, I am seeing more exceptions than I see “good fits” which makes me wonder if the exception is actually a norm.

The bulk of traditional metrics of poverty are based on the assessment of one or a combination of the following: 

  • Income
  • Expenditure
  • Ownership of tangible (a TV set or a cooking oven) or intangible (level of education) assets
  • Consumption
  • Vulnerability, i.e. accidents of skipping meals, falling sick and/or kids skipping school because of financial hardships

Grouped together or by themselves, these metrics are expected to provide us with a relatively accurate understanding of the layers of wealth and poverty in a given society. But do they?

When my daughter turned two, I took her to an up-country house to meet the grandparents on her father’s side. My then in-laws lived in a tiny (20-25 houses) village deep in a rural area. We travelled 6 hours by train and 2 more hours by bus to get to the former collective farm settlement, slowly loosing its youth to the Big City. I did not know what to expect from the visit; the absence of expectations served me well as I managed to avoid the pains of crushing stereotypes. My mother-in-law, a former teacher, was retired and living on a humiliating pension of $20 per month. Her 4-bedroom house was built in the early 60s and had neither water nor central heating (when you live in the Russian Siberia, central heating matters as much or even more than regular meals). There was no toilet in the house either. A wooden box covering a pit-latrine in the backyard was used as a storage; the in-laws were using the nearest forest as the toilet. Water was coming from the well in the main (read, only) street; heat was generated by a wood-burner. There was no TV in the house; the in-laws used a radio-tochka to get the news twice a day. My in-laws had a small patch of land where they were growing some vegetables, a couple of chickens, a cow and a pig.

So, let’s look at my mother-in-law’s status through the prism of the aforementioned poverty assessment approaches:

  • Income: $20 a month or about $.70 a day
  • Expenditure: Minimal, the in-laws produced all diary products in-house, they had their own flour, eggs and meat. What they were missing, they would get by bartering with the neighbors. Expenditure was limited to quarterly trips to the nearest rural center to buy some house cleaning staff, soaps, toothpaste, towels, and so on.
  • Ownership of tangible or intangible assets: except for the vocational education of my mother-in-law, there were not much of tangible or intangible assets to speak of.
  • Consumption: This one is tricky. With in-laws short shopping trips, their transportation expenses were rather low. Their electricity bill barely reached $5 a months as village folks get up and go down with the sun. Medical expenses were covered by the government policy for retirees. This was in pre-mobile-phone time; so, their land-line provided cheap, although unreliable, link to the relatives in the city. So, the consumption in this case will be evaluated by assessing the value of the food consumed by the household from their own production. Yet, my mother-in-law has not bought milk at a store in three decades – since when $1 was 0.9 rubles and a gallon of milk would go for $.30.
  • Vulnerability: Yes, the in-laws would occasionally skip a meal and get sick enough to not work in the garden for 2-3 day; unfortunately, those in their 80s tend to get weak and forgetful.

Most poverty metrics would happily define my in-laws as poor. Were they poor in reality? Thinking about my daughter, who in ten days at granny’s house turned from an urban wallflower into a “well-rounded” Honey Boo-boo, I can say no, definitely not poor.

I know many would say that my in-laws case is extreme, that they are an exception. But they are truly not. One of my American co-workers is obsessed with Masai. During his recent visit to Nairobi, we talked about traditional Masai lifestyle, their cows, manyatas, crafts, and blood-drinking habits. Don’t get me wrong, neither of us is a Masai expert, but we agreed that it’s very easy to mistake Masai (or any other nomad population) who live an atypical, cashless, out-social lifestyle for the poor while overlooking the alternative way which such groups use to accumulate wealth. 

The vector of the poverty-assessment error can be reversed as well. The recent study by iHub argued, many Kenyans are willing to suffer, in particular, “skip a meal or choose to walk instead of paying for the bus to keep their phones in credit.”[2] This study supplements the discussion by Standard Media’s Jevans Nyabiage and Emmanuel Were around the rising spending on luxury goods among Kenyans who invest thousands of shillings into expensive smartphones yet cannot afford quality education, do not have a current (checking) account, and some are even subsidized by the government.[3] With customs fees climbing up to 50% of the declared price, an iPhone in Kenya costs twice as much as it does in the US; the sacrifice to buy such a phone is grave. Yet, if we evaluate an owner of such an asset, we would probably qualify them as not poor even though they have been eating one meal a day for 6 months to buy that phone or never sent their kids to school because having a phone seemed more important than having a child who can read/write.

So, what’s the lesson? When I started writing this blog, I planned to finish it with a paraphrase of the famous Tolstoy’s statement about the happy and unhappy families, something along the lines of “all wealthy people are alike; all poor people are poor in their own way.” But I don’t think this is actually the case. Both wealthy and poor people have their unique financial lives, which complexity is further augmented by the mix of their cultural heritage, social surrounding, larger economic context, and so on. When we, as international development specialists, try to assess this complexity through still complex matrices, we might get misguided by assumptions that inform the design of these metrics and at times turn them into self-fulfilling prophesies. 

What do we need to know to enable us to continue with the promotion of international development goals? We need to know if a given adult or household has their basic needs for food, clothes and shelter covered via any monetary or non-monetary means available. We need to clearly understand the basics. Can this need be well served with a basic measure that is simple but not simplistic?