Bank Poverty Assessments – “irrelevant”?

14 April 1999

The Bank’s Poverty Assessments contain “relatively little of policy relevance” because of their narrow focus on income-based poverty lines, according to a report by the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. The Bank would do better to analyse poverty in terms of socio-economic groupings rather than compared to a monetary measure of income or purchasing power. The review of 25 Bank pre-1996 poverty assessments (PAs) for 22 Sub-Saharan African countries was commissioned by donors involved in the Special Programme of Assistance to Africa (SPA).

The report found that, despite the existence of Bank guidelines for conducting PAs, they varied considerably due to the composition of the assessment teams, the quality of data available, country characteristics, and learning over time.

PAs should identify who is poor, the causes, and an action plan to address them. Most, however, tend to simply provide a poverty profile, and quantifications of poverty have been limited and arbitrary. Poverty has generally been defined in relation to a money value, but these values can become subjective and problematic because they must be adjusted to account for differences in family sizes, different price levels, different nutritional requirements, expectations etc. The monetary focus has distracted attention from other dimensions of poverty such as access to assets and human rights.

The report also finds that most PAs:

  1. contain limited analysis of the relationship between the wage rate for unskilled labour and the poverty line in general;
  2. do not fully assess the limitations of safety-net programmes which often cannot help all those who need support;
  3. poorly conceptualise gender relations, which often significantly constrain household level accumulation;
  4. do not discuss the balance between human and physical capital development
  5. unconditionally promote development of health services and education without hard facts about the nature and distribution of services;
  6. largely ignore health and welfare needs such as mental health, domestic violence, and physical and mental disability, and pay limited attention to links between poverty reduction and improvements in access to safe water and sanitation, family planning, health education, and primary health care;
  7. do not question the importance of economic growth in contributing to poverty reduction or that stabilisation and adjustment policies create the preconditions for sustainable growth;
  8. do not analyse the type and structure of growth needed, and use terms like “pro-poor”, “labour-intensive” or “broad-based” growth in inconsistent ways;
  9. fail to address the problem of countries’ debt burdens.

The report recommends:

  1. improving poverty lines or abandoning them in favour of an approach which recognises operationally significant socio-economic groups;
  2. exploring each group’s special circumstances;
  3. exploring each group’s interaction with the production structure;
  4. modelling a development strategy consistent with economies’ internal structures and external constraints.

Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa: What Can We Learn from World Bank Poverty Assessments? Contact: Howard White, Inst. of Social Studies, PO Box 29776, 2502 LT, The Hague, The Netherlands,