Poverty remains one of the main obstacles to human development today. The global calamities we are currently collectively facing have led to an increase in extreme poverty for the first time in decades.
Persistent, trans-generational poverty is a mirror for the level of development of our societies, their level of social cohesion and health. In order to allow for meaningful solutions to emerge we require a better understanding of the multi-causal and multi-contextual processes that constitute poverty.
We can distinguish four key intertwined dimensions in the experience and reproduction of poverty.
- Core experiences relay the impact of poverty on the individual inner subjective level. The personal suffering at the body, mind and heart levels, the self-concept and aspirations of individuals in poverty. This has largely been absent from research to date in terms of understanding and addressing poverty.
- Relational dynamics pertain to the sphere of culture, community, and shared meaning. This includes the cultural associations and attributions of poverty and the stereotypes about a particular social or ethnic group associated with poverty and marginalization. It is expressed in the experience by its members of unrecognized contributions or other social and institutional invalidation.
- Privations relate to the external, objective or material experience of privation. As a dimension of poverty, this can include insufficient and insecure income, and a lack of access to decent work and education, health, and housing services.
- This is related to the broader systemic sphere which reproduces collective outcomes. In the case of poverty, it is the systemic policy, organizational and legal frameworks, and factors that underpin the inequitable functioning of health, education, housing, and labor markets.
An integral Approach to Poverty Reduction
The visual builds on the seminal participatory research detailed in the “The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty” report initiated by the International Movement ATD Fourth World, the University of Oxford, combined with the integral theory framework.
It corresponds to the Iceberg Model of social change, which visualises the different layers of a problem, beneath its observable symptoms and down to the root. In this model, the ‘submerged’ levels of the metaphoric iceberg represent the levels of behaviour and material privation, system and structure, and culture and mindsets: the innermost dimensions lying at the root level.
It is our belief that ultimately, only an approach that takes account of all these dimensions– personal, relational, behavioural, institutional and systemic dimensions, as well as the inescapable interconnections between them, can allow for the charting of a path towards transformative interventions.
This is in line with the Capabilities approach formulated by Amartya Sen over four decades ago, which became the basis for the sustainable human development approach. It considers poverty as the combination of elements that prevent people from being able to flourish, or the lack of ability to achieve the kind of lives we have reason to value.
While increasingly, the multi-dimensionality and complexity of poverty is reflected in international research and global measurements indices that aim at understanding and distilling people’s felt experience of poverty, there are fewer known and visible practices that address this core experience, or that bridge and work across the different realities and dimensions.
Despite the wide resonance of the approach and its support by evidence-based research, there has been insufficient uptake in policy – both at the EU and the national levels.
EU policy has long followed a mainstream active inclusion approach, whose primary focus is inclusion through employment. This approach sees labour inclusion as the main path to empowerment.
It is thus focused on enhancing job skills, with significantly less investment made in life skills – that is, addressing the inner dimension of human development, which can be a decisive factor for people’s ability to effectively access the benefits of mainstream measures.
The EU’s main policy and funding tools for poverty reduction and inclusion use the broader umbrella term of the ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘vulnerable’ but lack a targeted approach for socio-economic mobility adapted to the needs of specific groups.
The EU’s core social policy frameworks and funding tools assume unsettlement is temporary, glossing over the challenge of persistent poverty and long-term unemployment where certain ethnic groups, such as the Roma, are overrepresented.
At the national level, the actual practice of addressing individuals’ aspirations and mindsets as part of social development and poverty reduction efforts for the most vulnerable, despite the notable efforts of smaller initiatives, is in most places emergent at best.
‘Capacity building’ is by now recognised as a ‘must’ in development interventions. EU frameworks allow for ample resources for joint learning, transfer of experience and capacity.
Yet as strategies and programmes for social inclusion and poverty reduction emerge across Europe in this new investment period, capacity building itself remains a black box, and its potential is underutilized.
Conventional approaches to ‘capacity building’ are typically focused on expanding knowledge. This is mostly conceived as plugging in new information – usually technical skills – into the heads of people rather than building new capabilities.
In contrast, the integral approach is intentional and focused on expanding awareness and perspectives. It involves working with inner emotional states and aspirations, and helping people climb the rungs of their own ladders. Such an intentional and integral approach works with the state of being.
To eliminate poverty, we need to build skills beyond those we are used to focus on when we create frames of the world and then try to fit in. We must create new realities that our socialization, conditioning, and worldview cannot yet account for.
“The exercises of our mind have not reliably led us to answers about social justice. It’s time to use our hearts, our cultural DNA, and our ancestors.”