Category Archives: Defining Poverty

Building an effective definition of poverty which we can subsequently understand, remember, communicate & use

What Is Relative Poverty?


What’s the big difference with relative poverty?  Aren’t we just splitting intellectual hairs instead of fixing a very practical problem?

In response to the above: quite a lot & no.  First, let’s recognise there are indeed good reasons for introducing and maintaining the concept of “absolute poverty”, or “destitution” as the poverty entry on Wikipedia states. It makes poverty binary: you are either poor or you’re not. You either fall into the poverty category, or you don’t.

poverty statistics, poverty line, refugees, solve poverty sooner

Such clear conceptual dividing lines help us identify who exactly are ‘the poor’, for example, when we are seeking to give aid and support to those that qualify as ‘poor’. It is also easier to take existing, well-documented national and regional gross domestic product (GDP) figures, divide them by the relevant population figures & hey presto: you have a measure of the average annual GDP per capita for a given population.


You can then do the maths to determine what the average GDP/capita figure per day is for that country, region, city or district & determine whether that location thereby falls above or below the notional ‘extreme poverty line’ of US$1.25 per person per day. (As an example of this, refer to the ‘Poverty Map’ in the ‘Resources’ section of the sidebar on the right of this post).

solving global poverty through education, overcoming poverty issues


There are “lies, damned lies and statistics”, as the quote attributed to Benjamin Disraeli goes. A lot of significant truth can be concealed within generalised statistics and we are thus right to be somewhat wary of them at face value. However, they can also be very useful for certain purposes, when used intelligently. Consider the excellent short video by the statistician Hans Rosling, called “200 Countries in 200 Years” on YouTube. You too will believe a statistician can be interesting!

apples measured  the meter, sports apples

Rosling brings out some important details from vast quantities of United Nations data, showing (for example) that averages for certain regions in China conceal vast differences in the diversity of the underlying reality. If this is true even when we are using simple measures like GDP per capita per day, consider how much more relevant detail on true, underlying poverty is being concealed, once you understand that there are multiple key indicators of poverty – and they are ALL relative.

poverty solutions, feed the hungry, solve poverty and make a difference

So our position is this: by all means KEEP the concept and associated measures of absolute poverty, but recognise that a better image of the underlying truth will be gained by understanding that poverty is fundamentally a relative concept. We understand how ‘poor’ a person is by comparing them with other persons – usually their community of ‘peers’. Just like we understand (internationally) how ‘tall’ a person is by comparing them with those around them, rather than some globally agreed, common standard for “tallness“.



Let us illustrate the point about relative poverty with some extreme examples. Imagine a billionaire flying her jet suddenly encounters difficulties & has to crash land on a remote Pacific island. She has plenty of money, but no immediate access to the basics of life, unless she can find water, food and shelter from the elements and potentially hostile local wildlife. In that sense, her money counts for nothing. For an entertaining exploration of this kind of experience, try watching the film Castaway, with Tom Hanks, or try reading the book ‘Robinson Crusoe‘ by Daniel Defoe.

poverty problems, poverty statistics and poverty at the Oasis

Now, consider a different, imaginary end of the spectrum: a remote Amazonian tribe that has little contact with the rest of the world and avoids using currency. They may not show up on the national GDP figures at all, but they know how to fend well for themselves in terms of what really matters for sustaining human life. Common sense tells us that in that way at least, they are ‘richer’ than certain otherwise ‘wealthier’ people, who for various reasons do not have access to the basics of life. It is ready ACCESS to those basics which matters most when overcoming poverty; it’s not always about the money.

communities overcoming poverty, eradicating poverty and solving global poverty issues


When it comes to understanding relative poverty, we refer to these core poverty indicators as the 7 Humanitarian Basics.  Poverty is therefore helpfully understood as “the relative absence of the 7 Humanitarian Basics”; or in simplified, 5-year-old language: “not enough of 7 things we need“.  In order, these are:  water; food; clothing; shelter; healthcare; engagement; and freedom from oppression. These are represented by different colours in the 7 Layer Poverty Model below. Can you guess which colour water is?

7 Layer Poverty Model V1_Mar2014

Other posts on this site cover each of those poverty assessment indicators in more detail, but each one of them is understood to be RELATIVE when it comes to measuring poverty. Yes, they can each be measured in absolute terms (eg how many litres of water drunk per day, how many calories etc), but their significance in the context of overcoming poverty is best understood in relative terms for the individual concerned. We are interested in the quality of the water being drunk, the suitability of the food available for the individual suffering hunger.

relative poverty, absolute poverty, poverty definitions, poverty models, poverty profile


It helps by better identifying the real problems we are seeking to tackle, in overcoming poverty. Being better informed helps us make better overall choices about the allocation of finite resources, our priorities and the focus of our collective attention.  Let me illustrate with a story. A friend called Gemma was sponsored by a charity to stay with a family in rural Kenya during her gap year, ahead of studying International Development at a UK university. The family she stayed with was well educated and relatively well-off compared to others in their community. While staying with the family, my friend said that another charity had distributed a number of water purifiers to the local community, intended to try to help them improve their water quality.

poverty figures, poverty issues, solving global poverty and eradicate poverty

Gemma explained that the locals had a reasonable understanding of the local water supply and what to do to keep it safe and drinkable.  However, they were rather distrustful of the water filters, as they could not be sure when they would cease to be as effective as just boiling the water. Also, the filters worked so slowly, they were impractical to use for a typical local household.  Thus, the clever filters were left on the shelf to gather dust.

woman hand in water splash

I am sure that the charity distributing the filters meant well and that they were able to report to donors just how many extra ‘poor’ households were now enjoying clean water, thanks to those filters!  I do not know how much the true end-to-end cost was of approaching donors, administering the donations, procuring the filters, shipping them to Kenya, distributing them to selected communities and providing training to the locals on their use. What I CAN say with confidence, is that the end result of all that effort, was that they did not improve that specific family’s daily lives one bit.

definition of poverty, relative poverty, absolute poverty, poverty figures

I don’t know about you, but experiences like that leave us sad, frustrated and wanting to be more effective. We believe a better global understanding of poverty as a relative term is important and it WILL make a positive difference on the ground – by facilitating better uses of existing resources and efforts to overcome poverty.

poverty footprint, poverty model, relative poverty and absolute poverty measures

We aim for a billion people to better understand the true nature of poverty, through the 7 Layer Poverty Model.  We want those people to help focus the fixers of poverty, by promoting a clearer understanding of the problems and hence a better idea of how to go about fixing them.  Look through our other material on how to Map Poverty with ‘assessments’ and ‘poverty profiling’. Also discover how the Model can help ‘Focus Fixers’.

Conceptual image of sphere and arrows. Isolated.

You will begin to see how these three logical steps all link together and can all play their part in solving relative poverty, together with the ‘absolute’ kind.

And thanks again for being…

One in a Billion!


The Poverty Gap We Will Never Close


Our world of 7 billion+ people is an unequal place. ‘Beauty’ is unequally distributed. ‘Intelligence’ is unequally distributed. Height is unequally distributed. Genetic advantages are unequally distributed. Against that uneven backdrop, is it any great wonder that something as volatile as ‘wealth‘ is also unequally distributed? In fact, are not all those other biological factors a form of wealth in their own right? We would contend that they are certainly of value. Why then this selective focus on purely material measures?


But let’s not debate the origins, or significance of that right now. For the sake of argument, let’s just accept it as a given, that we are considering material wealth ONLY and that DIFFERENCES in material wealth between people really matter – and that’s why the GAP between them matters. For convenience, let us also use the simple term ‘wealth’ to cover both a person’s accumulated assets AND their annual income from all sources. This saves us having to find an alternative to the rather useful (but somewhat misleading) GDP per capita data, traditionally used to measure wealth between people from around the world and from different periods of history. Agreed?

Difference and Similarity. Abstract Concept.


Er, that could be tricky. Reading current literature on the subject seems to indicate that there is a ‘gap’ between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ – and it’s getting wider. Let’s assume that analysis is correct. Instead of our own consolidated ‘wealth’ figure, we guess they are referring more to GDP/capita figures. Apart from maybe the top few thousand or so most-scrutinized individuals on the planet, we suspect that nobody has a detailed picture of what individual asset wealth really looks like across a country, let alone across the world’s population. So we are all working with averaged figures, sourced from various Government and/or UN statistics.


The analysis seems to suggest that there has long been a gap between the ‘wealth’ of the richest X% and the poorest Y%. No great surprise there, as we recognise that there is bound to be SOME difference, driven by all sorts of valid factors: amount of hours worked, amount of skill required, amount of risk involved, shrewdness of investment decisions, variable regional house price  inflation and so on. In which case, the current heat of this ‘hot issue’ seems to be that this ‘gap’ is getting wider.

In summary then, difference itself is “acceptable”, but the AMOUNT of difference, or INCREASE in the difference perhaps IS NOT.



Nobody can credibly say, with any authority, what amount of difference is acceptable. Perhaps a reasonable best guess, removing approved variable factors, would be a ‘wealth’ distribution profile that looked rather like the ‘Normal Distribution Curve’. This curve is found again and again in the spread of values in nature.


You can take height, for example. If you plotted the exact height of all adult males (18+) in a given country, you would find that the spread of values followed an approximation to the Normal Distribution Curve of values, from the shortest to the tallest. While all sorts of variations can and will occur BETWEEN countries – from the lowest and highest values, to the values of the quartiles, means and medians – the shape of the curve itself will prove remarkably consistent. So we should not be surprised if ‘wealth’ follows a similar pattern.



The way in which ‘wealth’ is distinctively different, is the RANGE in the spread of possible values. You will NOT find any person over 3 metres tall – and certainly not over 100 metres tall! Nor will you find a person zero metres tall – which is the notional equivalent of a person with no ‘wealth’. So with height differences, we would be surprised to find the tallest person being more than, say TWICE the average for the population. Some might understandably look at that scale of difference in the NATURAL world, compare it to the degree of difference in the world of ‘wealth‘ and conclude that the sheer scale of ‘wealth’ differences are by direct implication, unnatural – and thus IMMORAL.

balls balance


However, consider TWO  counter arguments. First, consider how far a typical national adult population RUNS in the course of a year, on average. For the vast majority of the adult population in the developed world, the average for the year is unlikely to exceed much more than a few miles. Compare that ‘natural’ average to those who train for and run ultra-marathons. They are still human (we think), yet their average miles RUN in the course of the year will be hundreds – maybe even thousands of times the average for the rest of the population.


Secondly, consider gamblers.  How many BIG WINNERS do you usually hear about? In Europe, we have the Euro Millions lottery, that just about ANYONE over 18 can enter. Every ticket supposedly stands an EQUAL chance of winning. All completely fair then, right? If you want to INCREASE your chance of winning, you just have to gamble more and buy more tickets. In the UK, there have been a few winners who made over US$100 million. Imagine that! Compare that to what the ‘average‘ person typically wins each year. Statistically, for the vast majority it will work out to be slightly less than they have spent on tickets in that same year. In some cases, it could be a LOT less. That’s how gambling works. You will find similar stories in Las Vegas. There WILL be the lucky few who make millions – sometimes even maybe hundreds of millions. The global Stock Markets are the same. If it was that predictable, we would ALL be making money at it. But it isn’t, so we don’t. Agreed?



Running your own business is a little more tricky to call. There are more things you can do to try to MAKE things go well, but you could still make one bad decision after 99 good ones – and end up going bankrupt. You may not notice ‘those’ business people so much. The ones who ‘fail’ in this way often have a tendency to take themselves out of the game. Once you have suffered a major financial setback, it is harder to find the financial and emotional capital, to enable you to try it all again – pitting yourself once more against the tough commercial competition out there. Some people just don’t have it in them. Nevertheless, many DO succeed – and a few succeed quite spectacularly. Yet even then, it never stops being something of a gamble. These then, are the ‘luckier‘ ones who top the scales at the  upper end of our ‘wealth’ chart.


Because ‘wealth’ creation typically involves both elements of ‘effort‘ (like our ultra-marathon runners) and ‘risk‘ (like our gamblers), we should not be so surprised that there are such significant VARIATIONS in the spread of ‘wealth’ values at the top end. Similarly, as there is nothing to stop human beings making ‘bad’ decisions with their ‘wealth’, it should be no surprise to find some on our ‘wealth’ scale at-or-below zero. There is nothing intrinsically immoral, in our view, where variations in ‘wealth’ figures reflect differences in the contributing factors of effort and risk. That is even before we consider the morally-neutral, compound reinforcing factors of intelligence, inheritance, frugality, sacrifice, collaborative reward mechanisms and so on. We won’t even start on “being in the right place with the right face at the right time“.



We hope we have made our point. Significant DIFFERENCES in ‘wealth’ creation and accumulation can be explained with reference to morally-neutral factors. If those differences EXIST as a consequence of morally-neutral reasons, who is to say how wide a GAP is acceptable?  This is a serious question – and before we go on, we want YOU to come up with an ANSWER you feel comfortable with. Ready?

apples measured  the meter, sports apples

So, if YOU accumulate WEALTH from morally-neutral means, then RETAIN that wealth, even though you possess TEN TIMES the wealth of the poorest person in YOUR respective community, is that MORAL? Or shall we measure it by multiples of the AVERAGE ‘wealth’ in your community? We’re serious, which figure will YOU choose to make immoral? Imagine that whatever YOU decide is going to be made into a brand new Law, enforceable by imprisonment. Ten times the average sounds pretty excessive, right?

Career Opportunities in chess

So let’s just consider that choice for a moment. In the UK, there is Minimum Wage legislation, that basically means employers cannot pay an adult over 21 years old, less than about US$10 per hour, except in some special circumstances. Assuming a working week of 40 hours, that’s US$400 a week, or around US$20,000 per year. Nice and easy numbers for our calculations. So then, using our simple ‘wealth’ measure and our chosen tenfold cap rule, nobody should be ALLOWED to create more than US$200k per year, if we were to use the ‘Minimum’ measures as our guide. Agreed? Does that still seem FAIR to you, to penalise those who earn more than that with imprisonment?


But, you may rightly point out, that is the MNIMUM wage. What’s the AVERAGE wage? Well, since you ask, it is considered to be around US$40,000, or about TWICE the Minimum Wage calculation figure [Note: UK average GDP/capita figure using ‘PPP’, is around $36k by comparison].  So, sticking with the multiplier of 10, shall we still imprison those earning US$400k per year or more? If so, you don’t want to be a film or pop star – any significant success will land them ALL behind bars!

From impossible to the possible


We hope that this light-hearted example makes the very SERIOUS  point. Some people can and will earn more than ten times the AVERAGE income figure, even in more developed economies. The UK is considered one of the world’s top 5 economies (6th in 2012). Rich by both world and most people’s standards. Yet it is not so very unusual for some of the highest earners to make even 100 times the UK’s average personal income each year. Much (but we cannot guarantee all) of that will be via morally-neutral means.


So now back to you for a moment. What was the multiple YOU chose, beyond which you felt that the level of income being earned was somehow not morally ‘right’? In developed economies, people are NOT actually thrown into to the penal system for being high earners, but they ARE penalised. There is typically a penalty to pay for being a higher income earner – and it comes in the form of TAXATION.



Taxation is itself a system with its flaws and holes, but it is intended to take more from higher earners to invest in services that all citizens can benefit from. Or alternatively, those taxes are used to reduce the overall tax burden on lower earners. In that way, lower earners are meant to SHARE in the overall benefit of the earnings of the higher earners, albeit indirectly. This is intended to be an attempt at ‘fairness’, in that those earning more, pay a greater portion of their highest levels of income in taxes.


In the UK for example, the current top income tax level is 45% of income above around US$250k per year. So almost half of all income above that point is meant to go in taxes. Hence, although the headline income figure can be high, the take-home income figure can be just above half of that. And it is the take home figure that counts – as that is the bit you can actually spend.


Drawing a ‘moral’ line at any given income point is potentially fraught with difficulties and ambiguities – not to mention a fair amount of hypocrisy. If one ‘caps’ citizen income per year at say 10 times the national average, then does 9.9 times still count as moral? Also, does that ‘moral compass’ extend beyond your national borders globally? For example, Somalia’s average GDP per capita is estimated at around US$600. Should we then cap international earnings at US$6000 – or even US$60,000, if we allow an upper limit multiple of 100 times the Somalian figure?


Our point is, if you decide it is IMMORAL for one person to earn 10, or even 100 times what the average income is in ONE country, why not extend that same principle to other less privileged countries all around you? Why should that level of DIFFERENCE in ‘wealth’ be immoral WITHIN a country, but not BETWEEN countries? Our view is that trying to claim that any AMOUNTS of relative ‘wealth’ creation is intrinsically immoral – is futile.

The Poverty Gap We Won't Close

We see no obvious immoral amounts, just potentially immoral MEANS. Any moral focus is more fruitfully directed to what to DO with ‘wealth’ AFTER it has been accumulated. And when it comes to such MORAL arguments over ‘wealth’, we feel it is best if people FIRST try to ‘step into the other person’s shoes’. Before attempting to make any such judgements, you must first seek to imagine what YOU would be willing to do if you were in ‘their’ position. Because for SOME of the world’s ultra-poor, you ARE precisely in ‘their’ position.


We like to use the idea of the world’s 7 billion+ people, all ranked in ‘wealth’ order. The ‘wealthiest’ at the front of the queue (obviously), the ‘poorest’ at the back. Again, a reminder that we are choosing to use that very simplistic view of ‘wealth’, based on basic GDP/capita type figures. So where are you going to put yourself? Even among the so-called ‘middle-classes’ in more developed nations, there can be a tendency to look ‘ahead’ at those wealthier still, wondering why THEY are not doing more to help ‘the poor’.


Despite average annual wages in the UK of around US$40k per year, with a figure of almost 30 million in some kind of employment, those near the Minimum Wage will still tend to think of themselves as relatively poor. After all, the very phrase ‘minimum wage’ implies they are at the very bottom of the imaginary ‘pile’. But considered  alongside the ‘average’ Somalian, perspectives can change. Could millions of Somalians be looking at the UK’s minimum wage earners and wondering why they are not doing more to overcome poverty for Somalians? After all, there are a LOT more of them than the UK’s richest elite.


Yet those same UK minimum wagers are looking further up the notional queue, towards others in their own nation making a million dollars a year or more – with both envy and perhaps a sense of moral outrage. Who needs that kind of money anyway? Even people earning those millions could, with the same kind of forward-blinkered view, be looking at the world’s billionaires and wondering why THEY don’t do more. And so it could go on. When one person has a billion dollars and another has 50 times as much, even the former could believe the latter is the one who should be “doing more for the poor”. After all, THEY can afford it.



And so we return to the Poverty Gap that we believe will never be closed. There will always be DIFFERENCE in the wealth earned and owned between individuals. If you have difference, then some will always be ‘richer’, while others will always be ‘poorer’. In THAT sense, it is true: “The poor you will always have with you“, as Jesus is quoted as saying.

Our concern is that those best-placed to act against the worst extremes of poverty should be encouraged to do so. This does NOT mean the richest – but all those with the power, the opportunity and the inclination to act. THOSE are the people we hope to co-ordinate into a ‘coalition of the willing’.


Why spend ourselves and our energies trying to persuade a limited group of theoretical ‘OTHERS’ to act on closing a notional poverty gap, when WE are already (apparently) so fired up to take action OURSELVES?  Better the few with a willing heart, in our view. That is more likely to build an enthusiastic momentum among the masses – a billion of us, we hope.


We regularly have visitors to this site from over 125 COUNTRIES, collectively representing over 90% of the world’s population – so you are already in good company. We welcome all those best-placed to act, among this coalition of the willing. Inform yourself – educate others. This is our way. The do-ers do. The don’t-ers don’t.

If a person is more closely bound to keeping a billion dollars they don’t need, than helping a billion people who can’t read – they have become poor in a way that you won’t find in any dictionary.

If you are one of the many globally who wants to be more effective in closing the extreme poverty gap – then we have higher hopes for you.

And  we thank you again for being…

One in a Billion!



Can You Solve Poverty In 7 Words?


Can you solve the complex challenge of global poverty in just 7 words?  Well, yes and no – and perhaps not for the reasons you think.  Firstly, let’s deal with an obvious point.  Words alone won’t solve it; but the actions that those words imply, just might.  “Words are the clothes that thoughts wear”.  Such words thus embody ways of thinking, which in turn can drive behaviour and that lasting change in behaviour can, we contend, ultimately solve poverty.

But what do we MEAN by poverty?

A good reason to solve poverty sooner, solving poverty makes a difference


These are our 7 words. Or six if you leave out ‘the’.  To expand this summary a little, our contention is that in order to overcome, or otherwise solve poverty, we need to do 3 things better than we have done, up until now:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Map, or otherwise measure and represent the problem; and then
  3. Focus the various stakeholders, or ‘fixers’ who are individually and collectively motivated to overcome the problem.

Progress can be and is being made WITHOUT doing these 3 things as well as we might.  Our view is that existing efforts by existing ‘fixers’ will prove far more effective if there is better co-ordination and agreement between them. Simply put, we will get much more done with the same, or less resources, if we all know more clearly what we are all doing where, together with why and how we are doing it. It is simply looking for consistent and clear answers to Rudyard Kipling’s classic ‘6 Honest Serving Men’:  who, when, where, what, why and how.

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This post specifically tackles the first step, summarised in the first two words: ‘define poverty’.  What’s your definition?  Did you ever look it up in a dictionary? has three! You can check them out. The first includes the phrase: “The state, or condition of having little, or no money, goods, or means of support”. The second says “The deficiency of necessary, or desirable goods or ingredients”.  Both of these are helpful, but they are not universal. Worse still, they are not particularly memorable. Do you think you will remember them tomorrow? Or even in 5 minutes time?  And how well do you think a 5 year old would do understanding them & discussing them with their friends? Exactly…

poverty figures, poverty line, poverty definitions and poverty statistics

Now imagine trying to spread that common understanding to 7 billion people across some 200 countries and speaking thousands of different languages. Not easy, right?  No wonder we encounter some difficulty in tackling a problem that we collectively even struggle to define memorably.


Yes. We looked at a number of sources and combined that with some practical thinking, recognising that we specifically wanted a definition we could USE analytically, which would help focus the very efforts to solve the problem, which the word itself was labelling. We recognised the idea of poverty was not new. In Isaiah chapter 58, within the Bible, the writer lists some basic social standards that were expected of the people: ‘when you see the naked, clothe them’, ‘share your food with the hungry’ and ‘provide the poor wanderer with shelter’. These words were originally written several thousand years ago. They remain very practical today.

.Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in church, faith groups help solve poverty

Fast forward to the 21st century and Wikipedia’s definition of ‘absolute poverty’ covers some strikingly common ground.  Their list refers to “the deprivation of basic human needs, which commonly includes food, water, sanitation, clothing, shelter, health care and education”. Those agreeing the Millennium Development Goals might well have had such definitions of absolute poverty in mind.

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Now compare those lists to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, or motivations. If you are not familiar with Maslow’s work, you can find out more at Wikipedia, among other sources. In summary, he found that people the world over, were motivated by different things at different times. Nothing amazing there, you might think. However, Maslow’s remarkable insight was that these human motivations were typically organised into a hierarchy, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. This meant that people tended to start off with motivations at basic levels of survival and security, before moving on to ‘higher’ level motivations, regarding such things as belonging and achievement.

7 Layer Poverty Model V1_Mar2014

Our particular reason for referencing Maslow’s work here is its ability to model apparently complex, highly differentiated real-world human behaviours into a fairly simple model. That model can be consistently applied to all kinds of people, at all kinds of times and in all kinds of places.  It allows flexibility in its terms, such that the “achievement” layer can be uniquely interpreted for each individual, while the underlying desire to “achieve” is common to all.  The Concise Oxford English Dictionary has referred to “success” as ‘the achievement of that which was aimed at’. Our aim here is clear: solve poverty.

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In that sense, Maslow’s model allowed that different people may well be aiming at vastly different things, but that they were all tending to aim at something! The aiming itself, reflected the common underlying motivation of a desire to achieve. It is this same approach, of simple commonality underlying apparent complexity, which we borrow for our own definition of poverty. We also make use of insights from Maslow’s lower motivation layers of survival, security and belonging.

The stilt fishermen at work, Sri Lanka, Asia. Solve global poverty sooner

One more vital component in our definition, before we proceed. It is the core idea that poverty is ‘relative’, not ‘absolute’. Organisations like the United Nations and the World Bank understandably promote the generally adopted definition of ‘extreme poverty’ as those who live on the equivalent of US$1.25 a day. This approach is useful for their own purposes, as both population figures and GDP figures for UN member (and other) countries go back a long way and are readily accessible, country by country, region by region.  This is impressively illustrated by the stunning short video on global poverty indicators by Hans Rosling, called “200 Countries, 200 Years“. You will be amazed at how much complexity Rosling explains with such simplicity in 4 minutes. Do watch it. It has our highest commendation.

millenium development goals, world poverty map, poverty line, poverty definition
Percentage of Country Population on Under US$2/Day (UN 2009)


“The relative absence of the 7 Humanitarian Basics”.

Unpacking this definition, observe the following. It is written in adult language, but the underlying ideas can still be conveyed in simple terms. Instead of “relative absence of”, the 5 year olds we had in mind might say “not enough of”. Which brings us to the second observation.  Poverty should be understood at its core and from the outset as relative. But that does not mean we cannot measure and compare it.

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Consider human height. Like many attributes from the natural world, it follows a typical ‘normal distribution curve’ of values, when comparing 7 billion people to each other.  When measured in absolute terms, everyone’s height is different. If taller is better, then in that sense, we can compare the absolute measure of height, to give us the relative measure of whether people are taller (‘richer’), or shorter (‘poorer’) than each other. If I am 6 feet tall, then I am relatively shorter than pretty much all the USA basketball team, the Harlem Globetrotters. if I was in that team, I might well FEEL short among that group of peers. Among my usual peers in my own country, I am considered tall and indeed I feel tall. So how I see myself and how others see me is relative and is affected by my perceived position among my peers. There is no single, absolute global definition for ‘tallness’, or ‘shortness’. They are relative terms. And so is ‘poverty’.

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Nevertheless, I can measure my actual height with some precision, always knowing that my feelings and perceptions of “tallness” and “shortness” are driven relatively. The same is true with our definition of poverty. It allows for the experience of poverty in relative terms, but accommodates its measurement in more absolute terms. These two simultaneous aspects of the definition make it more useful for our wider purposes.

best reason to solve relative poverty, absolute poverty and any other kind

The last part of the definition relates to “humanitarian basics”. We choose ‘basics’ instead of ‘needs’, because the things we list are not all truly necessary for sustaining human life. You can get by without some of them – and billions of people alive today do. Instead, we prefer the notion of basics, a minimum standard. We use ‘humanitarian’, instead of ‘human’, because people are perfectly capable of surviving and even thriving as humans without having in place all 7 of the ‘basics’ we list.

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Instead, we think in terms of a rational human being setting a fair and reasonable minimum acceptable standard for another human being, that they did not know. As our guide, we asked ourselves the question: “What would we consider a minimum standard, even for someone who we didn’t like?”

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Thus we have our definition of poverty. But what are the 7 Humanitarian Basics that our definition refers to? They are drawn out and consolidated from the ancient Biblical Isaiah list, the modern Wikipedia definition of absolute poverty and the bottom 3 layers Maslow’s Hierarchy. They deliberately therefore draw on  understandings of poverty that have stood the test of time, while remaining thoroughly modern and relevant. They cluster certain ideas together for convenience, ease of recall and subsequent explanation to others. They are intended to be generic enough concepts to permit adaptation to relevant cultural experiences and variations. Each of them will be the subject of other posts, giving more explanation on each ‘Basic’. Posts will be suitably tagged to permit cross-referencing with other relevant posts on the subject.

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And the 7 Humanitarian Basics are:

1. Water.  2. Food.  3. Clothing.  4. Shelter.  5. Healthcare.  6. Engagement.  7. Freedom from Oppression.

Some will require further explanation and unpacking, which we will cover elsewhere on our web site and in these posts. By way of introduction, consider yourself dropped into the story of Robinson Crusoe, stranded on a remote island. Your own order of priorities will not be that different from the above list. That’s what makes it so universal and so memorable. In that sense and by our definition, Crusoe suddenly found himself lacking the 7 Humanitarian Basics & thus set about overcoming his own poverty.

Oasis from poverty, define poverty, relative poverty, absolute poverty

In the same way, please scan through our other material and see how this starting definition can move us from an intellectual exercise onto a practical one, helping to address the pressing lack of humanitarian basics faced by the poorest billion people on the planet.

And thanks again for being…

One in a Billion!