Disjunctures and contradictions: The role of measurement in poverty representation, policy, and development practice
The disjunctures between development policy and practice are well articulated in the literature. One focus of this conversation is the inherent tension between the partial and contingent nature of policy interactions and the need to operationalize practice to get things done. Often lost in these discussions, however, is the critical role played by poverty measurement in creating this tension. As a multidimensional construct and a policy concern, poverty has been ascribed many meanings such as a threshold of income, a lack of freedom, or the result of unequal power relationships. These discursive understandings, however, are not well integrated into the practice of poverty measurement. The disconnect is in part due to the fact that measurement tools inherently simplify the meaning of poverty. Moreover, for operational feasibility, practitioners must choose between measures, privileging one definition over another. Yet, the processes of simplification and selection conceal important social understandings that a multidimensional definition of poverty is meant to capture.
This research is concerned with the practice of poverty measurement. It looks at how the procedural act of collecting poverty data diverges from the popular discourse on poverty conceptualization and measurement; and, in turn, how this discourse diverges from experiences on the ground. I argue that how the development community conceptualizes poverty influences the practice poverty measurement which in turn influences the discourse, all of which help shape our understanding of what it means to be poor, and ultimately how we address poverty alleviation. To explore these recursive issues, I take the reader through the complex methodological steps of poverty measurement from the perspective of the practitioner and then analyze the process through the eyes of researcher. My study focuses on a single village in rural Kenya that currently receives aid from the UN World Food Program. Using a household survey and focus group discussions, I construct and compare four poverty measures commonly used by development aid agencies. My findings indicate that each measure defines a different set of households as poor and that the measures are related by the degree to which they capture a local or internalized understanding of poverty.