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Perspective on Poverty – Saadani

May 17, 2013

“I don’t consider myself poor as long as I have something to eat.” [village interviewee]

One of the problems our PAPR research program has had is to understand and address poverty in the context of conservation. Typically, approaches to poverty reduction have been based on objective and frequently economic measures of poverty whether they have been global standards [income per month] or locally determined measures such as household assets [e.g. tin roof, or number of chickens].  However, these common approaches, whether global or local, frequently reflect only the common perception of poverty as a condition that is directly or sometimes even indirectly related to economics.
However, poverty is actually multidimensional and requires multidimensional assessments making the process of determining development interventions very complex.  Take for example three women all about 60 years old and each living in a good house with a tin roof.  Woman A has three children all living in the same village with families of their own.  Her husband died last year after working in a well paying job for most of his working life.  And she has enjoyed good heath all of her life.  However now she is completely dependent on her children.  Woman B also has three children but two are living in a nearby city a few hours away by bus and another is across the country.  Her husband died 15 years ago in an accident and she herself has become deaf in recent years.  One of the woman’s children sends some of her income from a housekeeping job she has in the city but otherwise the woman is dependent on cooking and selling fish in her local community.  And Woman C had two children but both have died.  Her husband also died last year after a long illness during which she cared for him.  She is now experiencing acute arthritis and as a result has had to give up the small cooking business she once did to survive.  It is not difficult to imagine that the different influences experienced by these women will affect the circumstances under which they live and whether they are considered or consider themselves as poor regardless of the household assets that currently exist.
While these examples are not all precise circumstances I discovered in my research in the Saadani study area, they are illustrative of the variety of conditions that I was presented with in the course of my interviews.  I think they also illustrate the complexity of the problem of understanding poverty.  My research in the Saadani study area in Tanzania is focused on understanding the relationship between conservation and people’s livelihood decision-making and clearly the extent or manifestations of poverty encountered in the people I interviewed are going to influence that relationship.  In the development of my semi-structured interviews of local people in the three villages of Saadani, Matipwili and Mkwaja I chose to ask people to make a subjective assessment of their situation as a partial measure of the extent of poverty within their community and their place in it.  I asked each interviewee to rank themselves in three areas and to say whether in each of these areas they were in the top, middle or bottom third of people within their own community.  The areas were their social participation and status, their power and influence, and their economic status. These assessments were their own, about themselves.  Naturally some people made comments about the questions, explaining why they chose the level they did and those comments were often very informative.  Many struggled to make such choices.  There were also assessments that were obviously not the same as assessments that would be made by outside observers of the people and the community but were answers influenced either strongly by personal perception and belief or by other factors such as the context of the interview process itself.
Nevertheless the results are interesting.  Socially 31.4% ranked themselves in the top third of their community, 19.8% in the middle third and 48.8% in the low third.  For power and influence the percentages were 42.9% high, 29.8% moderate and 27.4% low.  And for economic status the results were 6.9% high, 35.6% moderate and 57.5 % low.  I believe that the personal perceptions of people about their own “poverty” are useful contributions to the analysis.  However it remains very challenging to actually define poverty or relate these perceptions to the appropriateness of development interventions in the context of the Saadani study area.
The woman who provided the quote at the start of this article ranked herself as moderate in terms of economic status but by any objective standards she would have been considered very poor.  The huge challenge of the complexity of poverty in the context of the PAPR research efforts is something that I suspect most researchers have had difficulty addressing.  I would say that not only because I have had the same experience and understand more now about the complexity of the issue but also because there is actually very little in the research developed so far within our program that specifically addresses these challenges and their relationship to conservation.  As I continue in my analysis and thesis writing I certainly hope these themes will be more fully explored.
By Bruce Downie

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