Psychological and social aspects of poverty – are they important?

Duncan Millar,This post follows on our discussion about Multidimensional Poverty in November 2012.  Here Duncan Millar, our Head of Programmes, builds on our analysis into 453 personal testimonies from children and families participating in COTA projects and on his presentation at the Forum. Duncan looks at the question what aspects of people’s experience of poverty appear in the testimonies that don’t appear in the Colombian MPI and why they are important.

As the personal stories show, the psychological and social aspects of poverty – often very subjective aspects – figure very significantly in COTA’s testimonies. These are often described in terms of deprivations of love, attention, security and recognition in relationships with family members. Now, whether psycho-social privations should be considered dimensions of poverty is a point for discussion.

But once established, these deprivations – such as the absence of nurturing family relationships* – are not merely by products of other dimensions of poverty, but actually reinforce or help to create them. So, as suggested in the story of Anamilé, a child is forced onto the streets because of feeling alienation at home.

For this reason, most of COTA’s partner projects involve helping to improve both access to resources such as education, health and income – and work on psycho-social issues, such as supporting family relationships. I would argue that these psychosocial issues are fundamental to understanding and combating poverty.

However, there is a danger in emphasizing psychosocial aspects of poverty – and particularly their contribution to perpetuating it.  This is that poverty is no longer seen to be about rights or equality or discrimination or justice.

Instead it risks being seen as primarily a personal or family problem which can be solved simply by encouraging behaviour change amongst poor people themselves. At worst, this is just a way of blaming the victim.

No amount of sessions with a psychologist to support family relationships is going to lift you out of poverty if you are living in a deeply unequal society, with no effective voice, beset by armed groups, with no jobs or accessible schools. However much you acknowledge the psychological and social aspects of poverty, poverty remains a problem whose roots lie in economic and political structures. And it must have economic and political solutions.

So I think one further advantage of a multidimensional approach to understanding poverty is this: it guards against the danger of overemphasizing the psycho-social aspects of poverty. And, indeed, it guards against a simplistic overemphasis on any other single dimension of poverty, such as income poverty.

In the end, as I have said, the great advantage of the MPI is that it entrenches the notion that poverty is multidimensional – as COTA’s testimonies suggest – and it emphasizes the fact that poverty needs to be addressed simultaneously on different fronts.

* = This is the focus of our next Project Talk on 30th January 2013. Book your place at http://nurturing-families-eorg.eventbrite.com


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