Case study

DFID Research: Chronic Poverty Research Centre: ten years of war against poverty

Chronic Poverty is a varied and complex phenomenon, but at its root is powerlessness. Poor people expend enormous energy in trying to do better for themselves and for their children

Picture: Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development

Picture: Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development

“Chronic Poverty is a varied and complex phenomenon, but at its root is powerlessness. Poor people expend enormous energy in trying to do better for themselves and for their children. But with few assets, little education, and chronic ill health, their struggle is often futile” (Chronic Poverty Report 2008-2009, CPRC).

The Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC), after 10 years of research on poverty, brought its findings together at the recent ‘Ten Years of War against Poverty’ conference in Manchester. The conference was a timely reminder that around half a billion people around the world are still trapped in chronic poverty. This comes on the eve of the UN’s General Assembly meeting to discuss the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which remain unlikely to be attained by 2015.

The conference provided the opportunity for academics, researchers and activists from around the world to discuss the pressing issues facing those people ‘trapped’ in chronic poverty, and gave further focus to the CPRC’s research, and its recommendations for promoting growth that is sustainable and does not leave the most deprived behind. This feature harvests some of the key messages of the ten years of research, and highlights its recommendations for development policy and practice.

Chronic poverty

According to the CPRC, “The distinguishing feature of chronic poverty is its extended duration. Chronically poor people are those who experience deprivation over many years, often over their entire lives and who sometimes pass poverty on to their children.” This form of poverty is difficult to overcome, and at the heart of tackling it is a need to understand better what it means to be chronically poor. The CPRC, over the last ten years, has sought “to provide better analysis of the characteristics and underlying social processes that result in sustained and intractable poverty.”

The situation of the chronically poor people is highly complex because people experience deprivation at multiple levels. “Those in chronic poverty are typically characterised not only by low income and assets, but also by hunger and under-nutrition, illiteracy, the lack of access to basic necessities such as safe drinking water and health services, and social isolation and exploitation.” This situation must end.

Fighting chronic poverty

Andrew Shepherd, Director of the CPRC, argues that the poor need targeted support, long term social assistance, political actions that confront their exclusion, and economic development which builds assets and redistributes resources. Over the last ten years the CPRC compiled a great deal of evidence that helps us understand better both the multi-layered nature of poverty, and the different trajectories into and out of it. This complexity requires a series of different policy responses, as chronically poor people are not a distinct group. In other words, research needs to be customised to specific national contexts. Nevertheless, the CPRC has identified five main ‘traps’ that they believe underpin chronic poverty and the steps that should be taken to break the cycle.

The CPRC’s 5 chronic poverty traps

  • Insecurity - the chronically poor are frequently those who live in insecure environments, and who have few assets or entitlements to cope with shocks and stresses.
  • Limited Citizenship - chronically poor people have no meaningful political voice and lack effective political representation. The societies they live in and the governments that exercise authority over them do not recognise their most basic needs and rights.
  • Spatial Disadvantage - remoteness, certain types of natural resource base, political exclusion and weak economic integration can all contribute to the creation of intra-country spatial poverty traps.
  • Social Discrimination - chronically poor people often have social relations - of power, patronage and competition - that can trap them in exploitative relationships or deny them access to public and private goods and services.
  • Poor Work Opportunities - where there is limited economic growth, or where growth is concentrated in enclaves, work opportunities are very limited and people can be exploited.

Respond to these traps

The CPRC has identified three broad objectives that should be pursued to address chronic poverty and remove these traps. First, effective social protection; second, economic growth and third, progressive social change.

Strategy 1 for overcoming poverty traps: social protection

Effective social protection has been identified as a priority area from the research carried out by the CPRC over the last ten years. It is defined by OECD-DAC, pdf 1.57MB as ‘the policies and actions - including social insurance, social transfers and minimum labour standards - which enhance the capacity of poor and vulnerable people to escape from poverty and enable them to better manage risks and shocks’. The 2008-2009 Chronic Poverty Report claims that “social protection has a crucial role to play in reducing chronic poverty. It tackles the insecurity trap by protecting poor people from shocks and reducing their extreme vulnerability”.

The CPRC has found that in many low-income countries, traditional forms of social protection are weakening while new sources of private social protection, such as remittances, rarely reach the chronically poor; and private insurance options are generally unaffordable. On top of this, the financial crisis, economic restructuring, increasing food prices and global warming are all hazards which hit the chronically poor very hard. Social protection provides the means to improve the economic and social security of these people, support their efforts to create human capital and assets, and provide the space to mobilise for social and political change.

The CPRC wanted to build on evidence from Latin-America that social protection had played a leading role in eradicating chronic poverty, by developing an approach that focused on the household rather than the individual. Following a period of intense policy engagement the CPRC was able to play a pivotal role in setting up of the Social Protection Task Force in Uganda. This resulted in a trial of a basic household grant for the poorest households, supplemented by additional grants for vulnerable people in the household (older, younger and disabled people). 13 districts in Uganda are currently benefiting from the trial, which so far has played a positive role in the war against chronic poverty and placing greater emphasis on ‘pulling’ the whole household out of poverty. (See Michael Edwards recent article in the Guardian on Social Protection which refers to the research carried out by the CPRC).

Strategy 2 for overcoming poverty: economic growth

Economic growth can not only make social protection policies more effective, but can also be a driver in its own right towards eradicating chronic poverty. However, the fact remains that many chronically poor people are found in the regions with the least agricultural potential and the furthest away from the main national markets. Add to this poor transport and communications infrastructure and what you find is that the chronically poor are often ‘locked out’ of national growth streams.

Chronically poor people are also commonly uneducated and have few assets which mean that they are often not in a position to take advantage of economic growth. Redistribution, human development, social protection, and progressive social change are essential elements if the chronically poor are to take advantage of growth. The CPRC is aware that macro-economic stability and pro-enterprise policies are important components of any growth strategy, but an enabling environment that fosters pro-poor trends in the labour market should also be central
to any strategy.

The CPRC has recommended that agriculture, strategic urbanisation, and social protection are three areas in which policy change should be sought to help economic growth play a greater role in the reduction of chronic poverty.

In the area of agriculture; transport infrastructure, education and access to information are all areas in which progress needs to be made. Transport infrastructure is an effective means to regulate the ability of local landlords, traders and employers to impose their prices on local labourers, producers or consumers. It also has a positive effect on food security, and reduces the cost of travel for those searching for work outside their local community.

Education is cited as a means to increase agricultural productivity; helps facilitate the transfer of assets into non-farm activities, and raise the chance of out-migrants being able to move successfully to urban areas. Access to information has also been identified as an important aspect of bringing people out of chronic poverty. Information about job opportunities, changes in market prices and new farming techniques and technologies are all important facilitators identified by the CPRC.

Strategic urbanisation is the second focus of the CPRC strategy for growth. The research argues that policymakers need to dramatically shift their thinking. Instead of seeing urban areas as ‘discreet units’ that need to be regulated by planning controls, a more aggressive planning strategy is required. Central to this approach is the process of building better links between poor regions and more affluent cities, and working towards the removal of social discrimination within the labour market.

The third focus is social protection, although this is covered above, it is seen as of particular importance in the area of growth because it ensures safeguards are in place that ensure the chronically poor can take advantage of economic growth. There is a potentially negative side effect of growth that can destroy livelihoods and lead to increased levels of economic inequality, particularly among minority and disadvantaged groups within a society who are not well placed to take advantage of economic growth. The CPRC is clear that redistribution policies should be used to build human capital and material assets of the poorest people to ensure all individuals within a community benefit from economic growth on a more level footing.

Strategy 3 for overcoming poverty: progressive social change

But overcoming chronic poverty is a little more complex than simply redistributing assets and building human capital. Progressive social change is crucial. Societies must give citizens a voice and ensure that all individuals’ human rights are protected. This building block is probably one of the most difficult elements in the fight against chronic poverty. Social, cultural and political relationships and practices are often well entrenched within societies. Duncan Green, Head of Research for Oxfam, has aptly jested that future research on poverty should focus on ‘Chronic Politics’, and the negative effects that politics can have.

Gender equality, social inclusion and increased political freedoms are deemed to be central to bringing about progressive social change. The CPRC identifies five policies that are particularly effective at contributing to the achievement of these goals:

  • Post-primary education
  • Reproductive health services
  • Strategic migration and urbanisation
  • Anti-discrimination legislation
  • An enabling environment for social movements

The CPRC has provided a sharp focus on gender equality in their work. They found that for many girls and young women, a key period in their lives is marked by deprivation and vulnerability to chronic poverty. Their situation is shaped by context-specific social institutions which influence their life opportunities and freedom. The CPRC has attempted to draw attention to the range of policies and ideas emerging globally that help dismantle discriminatory social institutions, which risk trapping them in chronic poverty. The CPRC presents the following key policy recommendations based on its work in this area, this acts as a guide to how we can make progressive social change happen. The recommendations were as follows:

  • Develop and implement context-sensitive legal provisions to eliminate gender discrimination in the family, school, workplace, and the community.
  • Support measures to promote childrens’, and especially girls’ rights to be heard and to participate in decisions in areas of importance to them.
  • Invest in the design and implementation of child- and gender-sensitive social protection.
  • Strengthen services for girls who are hard to reach, because of both spatial disadvantage as well as age- and gender-specific socio-cultural barriers.
  • Support measures to strengthen girls’ and young women’s individual and collective ownership of, access to, and use of, resources.
  • Strengthen efforts to promote girls’ and women’s physical integrity and control over their bodies, especially in conflict and post-conflict settings.


The CPRC has offered an evidence-based approach to the eradication of chronic poverty, and its recommendations could offer a viable way forward for policy makers. There is growing concern that the MDGs will not be met by 2015. This research imparts important knowledge, particularly in the area of MDG1 (eradicate extreme poverty and hunger), and should help shape an approach to eliminating poverty post-2015. By employing policy-engaged research the CPRC has already been able to see what their transformative policies look like in practice. At the heart of the CPRC’s work is a realisation that policies must be given time and not abandoned at the first sign of criticism, which is in turn dependent on the need for well grounded states, especially in a world of volatile markets and climate.

There is a great deal more to learn from the research carried out by the CPRC. If you want to know more you can find all their research outputs on R4D or through the Chronic Poverty Research Centre Website.

Updates to this page

Published 30 September 2010