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Experiencing poverty in Africa: perspectives from anthropology

Working papers

Written by David Booth

The value of a multi-disciplinary approach to the understanding of poverty and the design of poverty-reduction strategies is now widely accepted. However, this paper argues, current expectations about the potential contribution to poverty analysis from disciplines other than economics remain rather too slanted towards what are presumed to be the special strengths of PRA-based PPAs: capturing poor people’s perceptions, identifying their priorities and describing their coping strategies.

Properly understood as centring on the observation and interpretation of behaviour, anthropological enquiry has relevant things to say at all the three levels that concern a poverty status report: 1) who are the poor? 2) why are they poor? and 3) what can be done to reduce poverty?

Key findings under these headings are:

  • While anthropological work can help to enrich statistical poverty profiles, a more important contribution may be in documenting the variable, fluid, complex and contested categorisations and relationships that constitute the reality that poverty reduction efforts must contend with on the ground.
  • Documented responses to structural change are sufficiently diverse and affected by the particularities of local structures, including notably gender relations, that multiple paths of impoverishment or dis-impoverishment remain more likely than homogeneous national or regional trends.
  • Anthropological studies help to remind us that the primary stakeholders in anti-poverty operations are, of necessity, active participants in constructing their own future, while the activities of states and development agencies are not always empowering of poor people.

The main implications for the policy and practice of poverty reduction are:

  • The complexities which remain uncaptured by statistical and sociological categorisations of the poor are a source of uncertainty. Since it is known that they are numerous and important, planning for poverty reduction will generally benefit from a strong learning-process orientation.
  • Diversity of social response does not mean that no generalisations are possible, or that those that remain robust (e.g. the gains from decontrolling rural markets, or legislating on women’s rights) are unimportant. But it does strengthen the view that anti-poverty action needs to be built at least partly from the bottom up.
  • Development interventions, including anti-poverty strategies, are likely to benefit from an approach that is more institutionally self-aware. This implies placing poor people’s own efforts at the centre, and reflecting more self-critically on possible side-effects of the exercise of governmental and agency power.
David Booth, Melissa Leach and Alison Tierney