Eradicating spatial poverty traps: an important step in sustained poverty escapes for rural people

Photo: A group of farmers in rural Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Chiara Mariotti, Oxfam

Photo: A group of farmers in rural Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Chiara Mariotti, Oxfam

 If the zero-poverty target is to be achieved, poverty eradication must be about sustained escapes from poverty – escapes which do not falter and which take people as far away from the poverty line as possible. Too many poverty escapes are temporary and too many people experience downward movements into poverty. This means that the proportions of people achieving sustained escapes are much lower than we want to see, both globally and at a country level. Sustained escapes from poverty are key, but how can we support them, especially in the rural areas?

This has been the question and one of the topics discussed at the UNDESA Expert Group Meeting on Eradicating Rural Poverty to Implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (27 February – 1 March, Addis Ababa). With the goal to provide UN member states with guidance on practical action - the key interventions and policy instruments needed to meet the SDG - the discussion ranged different topics and involved a varied and multi-disciplinary audience, with health and education specialists joined by experts in poverty dynamics, rural development, financial inclusion, agriculture, ICTs and public private partnerships.

My own presentation focused on addressing spatial poverty traps(see power point presentation). It showed that people who live in remote rural areas are more likely to be not only poor but both severely and chronically poor and experiencing intersectionality (intersecting drivers of inequality and exclusion due to disability, ethno-linguistic group/ race, gender, religion). As a result, remote rural areas can function as spatial poverty traps (SPTs).

Key drivers of SPTs are agro-ecology; institutional, political and governance failures (where the ‘contract’ between central government and citizens in remote, marginal and less favoured areas is weak) stigma and exclusion (e.g. based on ethnicity, race, religion, culture) and physical isolation - intensified by inadequate infrastructure. There are challenges in responding to SPTs as the development of some may have been driven directly by existing policies, indicating that their eradication may depend on substantial policy reversals, which can introduce political resistance to change (e.g. structure of FDI and exports in China has benefited the coastal fringe – but not inland areas). In addition, the drivers of SPTs are heterogeneous, and as a result it is not simply the case of applying a pre-existing policy toolbox - context specific policy responses are needed.

However, it is important that policy makers persevere. The scale of the problem is substantial, with spatial factors driving the poverty of a large proportion of the poorest people. They are also resistant to ‘business as usual’ type responses - SPTs still exist despite aggregate economic growth and poverty reduction. It is also important to tackle SPTs because their removal is crucial for equity and achieving zero poverty. Also, something that should encourage policy makers to try to address SPTs is that they may be more responsive to policy than household or intrahousehold drivers of poverty.

Turning now to how this might be done, I identify a set of policies which can reduce spatial inequality and eradicate SPTs. It is clear that a multi-pronged approach is required, which incorporates: (1) investments in hard and soft infrastructure (including roads, ICTs, power supply, WATSAN, schools and clinics); (2) human capital formation (health, education), (3) enabling pro-poorest growth (social protection, agricultural and rural development policy, market information, fiscal policy and the enabling environment) and (4) enables sustained escapes from chronic poverty.

Looking firstly to illustrate the issues around investment in infrastructure, I have chosen the case study of domestic power supply in Viet Nam (Scott and Greenhill, 2014). Extraordinary progress took place between 1990, when only 14% of households had power in their homes through to 2010 when this had risen to 97%. The key drivers of success can be identified as:

  • Consistent leadership from central government – high level policy statements & progressive ratcheting up of targets

  • Devolution of responsibility to local government – flexible modes of delivery, innovation and adaptability to local conditions

  • Appropriate donor support

  • Flexible approach to energy sources

  • Flexible approach to connection costs and unit pricing

  • Later, introduction of subsidies for both connection and unit pricing for poor households

Turning secondly to human capital formation, a key ingredient to sustained escapes from poverty, issues are illustrated by the experiences of two African nations that have taken different approaches to investing in the education sector (link to Bird and Higgins, 2007). In Ghana, regional disparities in access to secondary education was holding back poor children from rural and particularly remote rural areas. The government responded by introducing the Model Secondary School Programme, with the aim of equalising education opportunities between regions. Under this programme, each district was to have a secondary school of equal quality to the best state schools in the capital. This programme has delivered considerable progress; however, high regional inequality remains, suggesting that a universal programme is a useful starting point but – on its own – is insufficient to bring the poorest districts in line with the richest. In Uganda, the government took the brave decision to lead the way in offering universal free primary education to all. This increased access, driving up enrolment and retention of girls and boys, including in rural areas. However, once again, universal provision was found to be just a starting point. Evidence suggests that equalising interventions are needed to address the binding constraints faced by many SPTs. This includes investing in soft and hard education infrastructure in post conflict Northern Uganda, driving up and equalising quality between areas and supporting post primary progression, particularly of the poorest girls. (Higgins, Bird and Harris, 2010).

Third, thinking about pro-poorest growth, I focus on the role that agriculture can play in generating growth from below. Lessons from around the world show the importance for pro-poorest growth of enabling particularly smallholder agriculture. In addition to this, creating healthy conditions for the informal non-farm economy, which provides opportunities for livelihood diversification, raises labour productivity and allows poor people to move up the value chain. Key to either of these strategies working, though, is reducing the effective distance to market by investing in infrastructure (including roads, ICTs, power) and enabling poor households in SPTs to access ICTs and power through a careful mix of appropriately designed and implemented regulation and subsidies. But reducing the distance to markets is not enough. Market functioning should not be assumed and some intervention to support market development may be needed. Where markets function well the focus can be on improving market access and enabling poor farmers to negotiate on good terms (e.g. market information, farmer associations, localised/ accessible storage, cool chain & agro-processing). However, where market functioning is not competitive key interventions can include ensuring that disadvantaged groups have access to market information, increasing accessible intermediate transport and improving local road and footpath networks. (Shepherd, Bird and Sarwar, 2019).

Finally, enabling escapes from chronic poverty requires a combined and sequenced approach, which tackles chronic poverty (by enabling poverty escapes); stops impoverishment (by preventing downward mobility, including by supporting resilience) and sustains poverty escapes (once people move out of poverty, helping them to stay out). Because chronically poor people experience intersecting inequalities, context specific, tailored, sequenced and combined measures are needed. Key measures to enable poverty exits, stop impoverishment and sustain poverty escapes are shown in the table below.


Findings from mixed methods research into sustained escapes from poverty in eleven countries also highlights the importance of addressing vulnerability to risk, which drives downward mobility. These risks can be  agricultural risk; asset theft; ill-health, adverse gender norms, conflict and disasters. Managing these risks is central to preventing downward mobility. Where this is achieved, poverty reduction can be achieved more quickly and people’s moves out of poverty are more likely to be sustained (for more about sustained escapes see here).

To conclude, what this shows is that we know a lot about what needs to be done to address spatial poverty traps and there are practical examples of progress from around the world. Now it important that  awareness is raised that countries will fail to achieve the SDGs unless they take seriously the need to both address spatial poverty traps and enable sustained escapes from poverty.

Kate Bird

Cover Photo: A group of farmers in rural Ethiopia. Credit: Chiara Mariotti, CPAN/Oxfam