This paper focuses on the production of poverty knowledge through measurement and assessment, providing an overview of contemporary poverty assessment approaches, and the issues and dilemmas involved in applying them in the context of poverty reduction policy processes.
Section One examines the policy process in order to understand the relationship between poverty knowledge and policy change. It looks at the way that legitimate knowledge is framed in the policy process – traditionally, as the domain of technical experts, who reduce complex phenomena to measurable variables – and how the frame changes if policy is understood differently, as a more chaotic process with multiple actors involved.
Section Two examines two broad questions – ‘what is poverty’? and ‘why measure it’?. The discussion focuses on the emergence of an apparent consensus amongst international development actors concerning what poverty is, and argues that this consensus obscures intense and wide-ranging debates concerning how poverty should be measured.
Section Three focuses on the range of methodologies which are available for poverty assessment, and examines the dynamics of choice between different approaches. We pay particular attention to discussing household surveys and participatory poverty assessments, and discuss the apparent contradictions which arise from the different epistemological heritages of each.
In the final section, in two case studies, we examine how international development actors with very different objectives, the World Bank and Oxfam, used a range of information about poverty in the construction of their policy messages. The case studies confirm the argument that, despite the range of technical choices which inform the practice of poverty assessment, the way that policy is formulated means that it is the situated agency and objectives of policy actors themselves that are perhaps the most important component in shaping the policy narratives that they put forward.