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Who are the poor? An experience with a community based approach

We feature a guest post from an intern on our livelihoods project, Jamie Toulze


Effective identification of the poor continues to be a problem
Identification of the poor has always been more easily said than done. Many people consider the poverty line to be 1.25 USD per day, but can such an amount universally differentiate the poor from the rest of the population? And what about those that are just 10 cents above the poverty line? It’s increasingly common for global philanthropic institutions to proclaim decreasing poverty by x percent as their primary goal. However, is thinking of poverty as a level of income enough to determine who is poor and living in misery?  

The instinctive reaction is to look at income; however income alone misses many of the dimensions that make life ‘miserable’ as Harry Truman so adequately put it in his inaugural address which introduced the concept of underdevelopment. It was over 60 years ago that he declared people had the “knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering” of the poor. Yet, today we’re still having difficulty understanding what it means to be poor. Over the years, new methods have been introduced to capture all these dimensions, such as poverty score cards, proxy measure tests, consumption measures and a community approach. In this post, I will discuss my experience with one state in India’s experiment with a community based approach.

Over the last 5 years, the government of Tamil Nadu, India in conjunction with the World Bank has implemented a community based method to identify their own poor. This method is called the Participatory Identification of the Poor (PIP) process and falls under the Pudhu Vaazhu Project in Tamil Nadu. In addition to having the villagers classify themselves as poor or not, the PIP process goes a step further than just identifying the poor by creating a Village Poverty Reduction Committee (VPRC). This committee is made up of 10-15 women from the poorest of the poor households as well as under-represented demographics such as scheduled tribes or castes, youth and the disabled. This committee not only identifies the poorest of the poor but also determines the interventions that will be used to assist these vulnerable households.

Over the course of my fieldwork, I managed to go to several villages and ask about this process and how satisfied the villagers were with the program. I have to admit that when I first saw the video on the PIP process it was hard for me not to be skeptical. It seems to be a long and arduous process with far too many steps for the villages to be carrying them out as planned.

However, on the field I was surprised to see that is exactly what was happening. I observed the process of creating the VPRC, which was step-by-step just as the video showed and I was able to ask some beneficiaries of the VPRC about their aid. Everyone I spoke to informed me that they were getting employed after receiving training or knew of people who had and that the disabled were being assisted where they once had been over looked. It seemed that by engaging the communities in their own assistance, people were much happier and satisfied with what was being done. When asked to rank all the government schemes, the villagers who knew of the PIP process and VPRC ranked it as number one.

In addition to what I've seen of Tamil Nadu’s community based approach, there was also a study by JPAL which compared several models of poverty identification. The results state that while community methods were less accurate than proxy means tests in identifying people who lived on less than 2 dollars a day, community members were more satisfied with the community based approach. This goes to show that poverty is multidimensional and that income alone does not fully capture those who are living in misery. While restricting a target or goal to very identifiable measures (such as income) is easier and more manageable for companies and countries to work towards, it's less inclusive and beneficial in the eyes of the community members. 


This year, the World Bank’s president Jim Young Kim set a goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. Based on today’s measurements of income this goal is possible however, even if we reach this goal, the world will be far from having eliminated those ‘living in misery’. Poverty is more than a number, it is a condition of living and those that are living it are the best suited to identify themselves, as the government of Tamil Nadu and PAC have both found. While we might be a bit slower than Harry Truman would have thought, I believe we are gaining better knowledge on how to pull people out of misery.


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Jamie Toulze is a second year master's student at University of California San Diego's International Relations, Pacific Studies program (IR/PS). She is studying public policy and joined CMF over the summer to better understand development research. Previously, she received her bachelors from the University of California Santa Cruz in anthropology and worked for the military and as a teacher overseas.


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