The concept of ‘destitution’ presents challenges to several preoccupations of contemporary poverty discourse: the definition of poverty (narrowly income-based versus broader multi-dimensional approaches); the measurement of poverty (quantitative versus participatory methods); and the temporal dimension (chronic versus transitory poverty).
Recognition of the multi-dimensionality of poverty has rarely been reflected in integrated analytical or policy frameworks. The Millennium Development Goals focus on simple quantitative targets, and fail to differentiate between degrees of poverty. By contrast, this paper argues that destitution is intrinsically a multi-dimensional concept, and it emphasises the severity of poverty – in contrast to ‘chronic poverty’, which emphasises the duration of poverty. A definition of destitution is proposed with three components: inability to meet subsistence needs, assetlessness, and dependence on transfers. A conceptual framework is developed for analysing destitution that draws on the ‘sustainable livelihoods’ approach.