Why we need national consensus on the conceptualization of poverty

Statistics on poverty in South Africa and across the world are inconsistent. Busiso Moyo says this is because we have not been able to provide universal definition for the phenomenon.

He says that South Africa needs to establish an official poverty measurement tool in order to be able to accurately measure its extent and to appropriately implement interventions, preventative mechanisms as well as outcomes assessments.

If we can create a consensus on the information of the levels poverty and the resulting inequality in South Africa in the public domain we can build a national commitment to eradicate poverty beyond government obligation.

Moyo, who is the advocacy and campaigns officer at the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII), says that poverty is a contested concept. This is because there are different tools and narratives of poverty adopted by different institutions across the world.

SA context

Moyo says that poverty in the country cannot be understood without the context of our racial past.

Poverty and inequality in SA results from a complex history, and it is unsurprising that race has influenced the conceptualisation of poverty in South Africa.

In 1995's Copenhagen declaration during the World Summit for Social Development (WSSD), South Africa committed to adopting an official measure of poverty but has failed to do so.

He says the collection and presentation of data was previously combined with racial attitudes. Post-1994 we are still grappling with how to come about with a comprehensive and credible tool of how best to measure the burden of poverty in South Africa.

Using the example of social grants, Moyo suggests that government cannot provide solutions for poverty. The grant only provides for those already vulnerable, and cannot prevent vulnerability.

As a result social security is limited and the safeguarding of socio-economic rights remains unfulfilled.

Political dimensions

Moyo says there is an urgent need for all state structures and other institutions focused on research and development to agree on the extent of poverty in order to improve policy objectives and interventions.

Currently, the only agreement is that poverty is stubbornly high and unacceptable.

Poverty is political because it relates to the allocation and distribution of resources and reflects the impact of past and present policy choices.

He says that divergent discourses on poverty are created to advance certain causes and motives.

Sometimes we adapt the poverty debate to serve different interests.

Rural and urban divide

Certainly the levels of education, health and other infrastructure accessible in certain regions will affect the extent of poverty they are presented with. However, Moyo says we must challenge the assumptions created around the location of poverty. Often the discussion focuses solely on rural regions and he says that urban migration and transitional diets are causing a malnourished population in metropolitan areas as well.

Defining poverty by means of an agreed upon benchmark will assist in creating a precise geographic map in the country.

Listen to the full interview on the Redi Tlhabi show:


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