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The perils of measuring poverty: Identifying the 'poor' in rural Ethiopia


  • Philippa Bevan
  • Sandra Fullerton Joireman


The measurement of poverty in Africa has been pioneered by economists (whose measurements usually apply to income or consumption by households) and grass-root 'participationists' (who tend to use community definitions of household wealth/poverty). These measures are often used in arguments about the causes of poverty and what should be done about it, and these arguments are often more ideological than scientific. In this paper, which comes from a sociological tradition, we focus on the meaning and use of measures of poverty, using data collected in rural Ethiopia from which we have constructed four different measures of poverty, for three different localities. We deconstruct the concept of 'poverty', explore the ways in which the different measures relate to the elements we have isolated, describe the measurements and consider their advantages and disadvantages, and compare their different outcomes in terms of identifying 'the poor' in the three sites. In conclusion, we argue that none of the measures as applied identifies 'the poor' in a convincing way, that our conceptual discussion suggests that this may not be possible in principle, that very great care must be taken in data collection for, and calculation, use and interpretation of, consumption poverty measures in subsistence economies, and that poverty measurers of all persuasions should acknowledge the complexities, reduce the rhetoric, improve the rigour and get 'smart'.

Suggested Citation

  • Philippa Bevan & Sandra Fullerton Joireman, 1997. "The perils of measuring poverty: Identifying the 'poor' in rural Ethiopia," Oxford Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 25(3), pages 315-343.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:oxdevs:v:25:y:1997:i:3:p:315-343 DOI: 10.1080/13600819708424138

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    Cited by:

    1. Sharp, Kay, 2007. "Squaring the "Q"s? Methodological Reflections on a Study of Destitution in Ethiopia," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 35(2), pages 264-280, February.
    2. Peter Little & M. Priscilla Stone & Tewodaj Mogues & A. Peter Castro & Workneh Negatu, 2006. "'Moving in place': Drought and poverty dynamics in South Wollo, Ethiopia," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 42(2), pages 200-225.
    3. Bogale, Ayalneh & Korf, Benedikt, 2009. "Analysis of poverty and its covariates among smallholder farmers in the eastern Hararghe highlands of Ethiopia," 2009 Conference, August 16-22, 2009, Beijing, China 51469, International Association of Agricultural Economists.
    4. Bogale, A. & Hagedorn, K. & Balu, G., 2002. "The Dimensions of Poverty and Inequalty: A Focus on Rural Households in Ethopia," Proceedings "Schriften der Gesellschaft für Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaften des Landbaues e.V.", German Association of Agricultural Economists (GEWISOLA), vol. 37.
    5. Philippa Bevan, 2000. "Who's a goody? Demythologizing the PRA agenda," Journal of International Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 12(5), pages 751-759.
    6. Christelle Swanepoel, 2005. "Poverty and Poverty Dynamics in Rural Ethiopia," Working Papers 03/2005, Stellenbosch University, Department of Economics.
    7. Bigsten, Arne & Kebede, Bereket & Shimeles, Abebe & Taddesse, Mekonnen, 2003. "Growth and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia: Evidence from Household Panel Surveys," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 31(1), pages 87-106, January.
    8. Shaffer, Paul, 2013. "Ten Years of “Q-Squared”: Implications for Understanding and Explaining Poverty," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 45(C), pages 269-285.
    9. Stephen Devereux & Kay Sharp, 2006. "Trends in poverty and destitution in Wollo, Ethiopia," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 42(4), pages 592-610.
    10. Owens, Trudy, 2004. "External Support During the Transition Phase: Roles for Humanitarian Aid and Development Assistance from a Village Perspective," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 32(10), pages 1711-1733, October.
    11. Bogale, Ayalneh & Hagedorn, Konrad & Korf, Benedikt, 2003. "Why Does Poverty Persist In Rural Ethiopia?," 2003 Annual Meeting, August 16-22, 2003, Durban, South Africa 25857, International Association of Agricultural Economists.
    12. Kanbur, Ravi & Shaffer, Paul, 2007. "Epistemology, Normative Theory and Poverty Analysis: Implications for Q-Squared in Practice," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 35(2), pages 183-196, February.

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