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Steps in a Stages-of-Progress Inquiry into Poverty and its Causes

1. Assemble a diverse and representative community group: It is important in each community one studies to speak collectively with members representing different segments and different social groups. It is particularly important to have in attendance older members from each community segment, who can speak knowledgeably about households’ situations 25 years ago and in the intervening period.

2. Present clearly the objectives of the exercise: It is very important to clarify at the outset that there are no benefits to be had (or any losses to be incurred) from speaking freely and frankly before the assembled gathering.

3. Define collectively what it means for a household to be regarded as poor. The rest of the exercise hinges upon this step. So it is critically important to discuss and define a common understanding of poverty and of what it means for some household in the community to be regarded as poor.

The Stages-of-Progress approach was developed for this purpose. Community groups delineate the culturally relevant stages of progress that poor households typically followed on their ways out of poverty, and they designate the particular stage at which households are no longer poor as locally understood.

What does a household usually do, we ask the assembled villagers led by elders from different social groups, when it climbs upward gradually from a stage of acute poverty? Which expenditures are the very first ones to be made? Which ones follow immediately after? As more money flows in, what does this household do in the second stage, in the third stage, and so on?

We had thought initially that there would be considerable differences in these stages from village to village, and indeed some differences in activities and expenditures were recorded for higher-level stages. At the lowest stages, however, when households are still desperately poor or just about coming out of dire poverty, there were absolutely no differences in the sequence narrated in different villages.
The first four stages, in particular – buying food to eat, sending children to school, possessing clothes to wear outside the house, and retiring debt – were common not just to all 35 villages that we studied in one region of central India. They were also commonly reported by the men’s and women’s groups that we organized and consulted separately in each particular village. And there was common agreement in both sets of groups in all 35 villages that households progress out of poverty through pathways that go successively through these four consecutive stages.

It is likely that different stages of progress have been socially constructed in other parts of the developing world. And indeed a different sequence of stages was reported by residents of the western Kenyan villages that we studied. However, in all of the Luo-speaking villages that we surveyed a common set of initial stages was described, constituting a commonly shared understanding of poverty, and in the Luhya-speaking villages, a different but still internally common and shared sequence of stages was described.

Villagers’ strategies for overcoming poverty are closely related to the achievement of these milestones. They deem themselves poor when their households’ members do not have enough to eat or decent clothes to wear, when they accumulate more debt without being able to repay installments due on past debt, and when they cannot afford to send their children to school. And they work hard to achieve at least this bare minimum stage of existence for their households.

Well-defined and clearly understood criteria for classifying households as poor or non-poor were derived in this manner, and these criteria are related directly with the strategies that households pursue to deal with poverty in their midst. Based on these well-understood criteria it is possible to classify which households are poor at the present time and which households were poor 25 years ago.

4. Treating households of today as the unit of analysis, ask about household members’ poverty status today and in the earlier period: List all households in the community unit (village or township). Referring continuously to the shared understanding of poverty developed in Step 3, describe each household’s status both today and for the earlier period. Ranking each household’s progress in terms of the successive stages of progress helps verify who was indeed poor in each period; and it also helps assess relatively how poor they were in each period: Could they afford food but not clothes or shelter or education? Did they progress through each of these stages but were unable to go on to the next stage (which villagers in western Kenya defined as possessing small livestock, first chickens, then sheep and goats).

5. Refer to a well-known signifying event to demarcate the first period: Merely saying “25 years ago” is not clear enough, and it is possible that people might refer to different times while speaking of households’ situations in an earlier period. In India reference was made to the national emergency of 1975-77, which is clearly remembered by all older villagers. In Kenya, we referred to the time of President Jomo Kenyatta’s death (in 1978), which villagers remembered quite vividly.

6. Categorize households: Some households were poor in the earlier period but are not poor now. Others were not poor then but have become poor since. Four categories of households include:

A. Poor then and poor now (remained poor);
B. Poor then and not poor now (escaped poverty);
C. Not poor then but poor now (became poor); and
D. Not poor then and not poor now (remained not poor).

7. Ascertain reasons for change (or stability) for a random sample of households: The facilitating team then chooses a random sample of households from each of these four categories and queries the assembled community group as to the circumstances within which these households moved or stayed the same. For example, ‘What were the major factors behind Household X’s shift from non-poor to poor’? Probing further is an important pursuit – e.g. ‘So the livestock died from disease; this has happened in other households that have not fallen into poverty; why was this a particularly important factor for this household? What else was relevant to their particular case?’

8. Follow up with household-level interviews to verify and go deeper into reasons for change (or stability) for this random sample of households. Additional information for all households within the random sample drawn above is obtained by interviewing individual members of those households. The goal here is to delve in more detail into the reasons behind each such household’s movement or stability in relation to poverty categories over the past 25 years – and to cross-check the information provided by the community group. Ideally, several people from a household are interviewed separately and concurrently. At least two people are interviewed from each household. If possible, women are interviewed by female investigators and men by male investigators.

This method, with adaptations made to suit diverse local conditions, has helped to conduct inquiries about household mobility in two Indian states (Rajasthan and Gujarat), and separately in western Kenya. Future investigations are planned for other Kenyan regions and for communities in parts of Ecuador and Uganda.

The Stages of Progress approach does not represent some ideal method that should be uncritically adopted everywhere that poverty is studied. It is an emerging methodology that can certainly be improved upon and elaborated further. What it does enable us to do, however, is to uncover important reasons for escape and for decline that have hitherto been mostly ignored.

Poverty is responsive to national, regional and also local-level factors, and focusing exclusively at the national level is helpful at best for identifying a subset of factors associated with poverty in any context. Yet, because of data limitations, analyses of poverty have been restricted mostly to the national level. More broad-based assaults on poverty will require attention as well to regional and local levels, but we do not as yet have any very well-founded methods for this purpose.

Longitudinal studies tracking the poverty status of several different households over time are likely to be helpful in this regard. However, very few studies are available globally that consider data collected over multiple periods for the same set of households. Such studies are relatively expensive to undertake, and unless data are already available for the earlier period, one must wait a long period before their results come in. It is important, therefore, to develop some other methodologies that enable us to identify reasons for escape and reasons for descent in particular geographic and community contexts.

Why people fall into poverty needs to be known much better, and why only some people (and not others) are able to benefit from growth will also need to be investigated more closely. Localized studies based on local meaning structures will help identify household strategies associated with escape and with decline. Suitable methodologies need to be developed for this purpose. That is the main point of the exercises we are undertaking. And that is why we have presented in some detail one such methodology – though hardly the only one possible – that is currently being adapted and implemented in three quite different domains. Building on a rich history of participatory approaches, the Stages of Progress methodology is rigorous but relatively simple to apply. Communities can utilize these methods on their own to track poverty in their midst, to isolate reasons for escape and for descent, and to develop strategies to deal with these reasons.

Admitting different definitions and methods will help us accomplish multiple different objectives related to poverty reduction. The field is too narrow at present and too concentrated within one limited (and limiting) meaning of poverty. Disaggregating by trend (escape and descent), by reason (why escape and why descent), and by region and method will help us to uncover new facts about poverty and to triangulate and verify old facts. Progress in poverty reduction will be better as a result. That is our hope, and that is our reason for undertaking these exercises.

A full field manual for The Stages of Progress Methodology© available by clicking here. By clicking here, you accept Fair Use of Copyright as defined by www.whatiscopyright.org.

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