Moreover, there are many other considerations that must be taken into account, any of which can obfuscate the impact of the World Bank's actions.
UNESCO's perspective is less linear in its logic. Armed with a vague and shifting understanding of the antecedents of poverty, UNESCO not only has trouble measuring poverty but also has trouble drawing links between specific program actions and the elimination of poverty. UNESCO understands that broad strokes of how poverty comes about (or more accurately is not eradicated) but seems unable to translate this to policy in the clear way that the World Bank has been able to.
Affect of Different Measures
There are two main implications of the fact that nearly every agency, government and NGO has its own measure of poverty. The first implication is that there is no agreement on what poverty is, and the second is that there is no agreement on what to do about it. There is no doubt that poverty is a complex issue, but in order to make headway in dealing with poverty, there should be some coordinated effort. No one nation or agency can eliminate world poverty on its own. Thus, a common definition would help to focus efforts. However, no common definition is possible because of the myriad different perspectives that go into the understanding poverty. Politics is invariably involved in defining poverty, partly because the stakeholders all have their own ideologies that help drive the definition and partly because there is money involved, and different definitions shape how that money is spent. With no agreement on what poverty is, there can be no understanding of the scope and dimension of the problem. While some groups see poverty as a social issue, other see it as an economic one, and a third view takes from both. In addition, with no agreement on what poverty is, we can never truly reach an agreement on when we have actually eliminated poverty. To use an absurd example, we could eliminate poverty today simply by changing the way we define it. Or conversely, we can define 99% of the world's population as being impoverished. At some point, if we are to truly eliminate poverty, we are going to need to have a more clearly defined benchmark by which we can define the issue.
Flowing from this, if we cannot even agree on what poverty is, how much of it there is, or where it is, then we also will be unable to make an adequate determination of how to go about eliminating poverty. To eliminate poverty, benchmarks are required. Those benchmarks will help to set specific policies that will allow regions to meet those benchmarks. However, the underlying causes of poverty are complex, and subject to considerable interpretation. The complexity of poverty makes it an inherently difficult issue to tackle, something that is not improved by having no real definition of poverty. After all, poverty is just a symptom of underlying problems and in order to eliminate poverty we need to address those underlying problems. However, without a clear definition of poverty there is no way to adequately understand what those underlying problems are.
Ideology often becomes the guidepost for understanding the root problems of poverty. This is not a smart way to understand poverty, and will always lead to failed outcomes. Evidence-based policy would seek to define the underlying problems by drawing statistical connections between different aspects of economic policy, social policy, governance, resources and whatever other measures can be tested and the definition of poverty. Thus, if there is no definition of poverty, then there is no way to measure the hundreds of potential underlying contributing factors for their impact on poverty. Rigorous testing could tell use the degree of correlation between, say, corruption and poverty, and of course we could determine how well the variables are correlated with each other as well in order to produce some clarity as to the underlying conditions that cause poverty the symptom. This type of analysis, however, demands a consistent definition of poverty by which we can run such statistical comparisons. And without evidence-based analysis we are left with little more than ideology and "you know it when you see it" type definitions, the latter of which provides no real clarity and the former of which is likely to provide faulty policy prescriptions.
If the world were governed by a single organization, it might be possible to formulate a common definition for poverty than could then be used to set benchmarks and public policy leading to the elimination of poverty. However, that is not the case. The task of eliminating poverty has fallen to thousands of bodies -- local and national governments, international organizations like the World Bank or UNESCO, and NGOs. Each of these has its own definition of poverty and in general seeks to eliminate poverty without coordination with any of the other groups.
A simple understanding that there are many issues involved in the perpetuation of poverty leads to the conclusion that the elimination of poverty will involve the work of many different bodies on many different fronts. Coordination would naturally be the best approach, but this is not done, in part because no two organizations can agree on what they are working towards. As a result, the different organizations pursue their own goals individually. Coordinated effort would allow for the appropriate integration of policy and creation of critical feedback loops, whereas independent action makes these things difficult. As a result, actions taken to reduce poverty -- whatever the definition -- are ultimately less effective than if the efforts were better-coordinated.
A key assumption in understanding how the lack of a coordinated definition of poverty leads to worse outcomes with respect to the elimination of poverty is that there are scarce resources available to fight poverty, and that these resources are probably insufficient to tackle the problem globally all at once. It is necessary, if these conditions hold, to have coordinated effort among those groups fighting poverty, so that their efforts be as efficient as possible. This will make the dollars and human resources that are available more effective. This is especially important when one considers that feedback loops are involved in the perpetuation and elimination of poverty -- the coordinated effort of multiple groups simultaneously is the most effective means of tackling poverty in any given region.
Instead, the different definitions lead groups to different actions in different regions. This means that in many instances key feedback loops -- the links between actions taken on the economic, social and political fronts - fail to develop, or develop more poorly than is needed to truly pull a region out of poverty.
It is impossible to address a multi-faceted issue like poverty in an ad hoc manner. Yet that is precisely what is happening today, and to some extent that is why the issue of poverty as yet persists. There are other factors -- exploding populations and lousy governance being important as well -- but the lack of coordination among groups that are nominally oriented towards the same objective is another contributing factor. We might not be able to eliminate poverty with more coordinated work based on a common agreement as to the definition and measures of poverty, but we might have been further along had we had such a common agreement. That no common definition of poverty exists means that no common measures of poverty exists. This means that the efforts of each group are driven by measures that not only are not coordinated with the measures of other groups but may not even be congruent. As a result, the efforts are inefficient, and that draws a clear connection between the lack of a common definition of poverty, common measures for poverty and our inability to address poverty in any meaningful way in the past sixty years.
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