When Maxton Tsoka and his team of researchers set out to test a new and innovative approach of assessing poverty in rural Malawi, they believed they had a pretty good idea of what to look for. They did not consider beauty, but physical appearance was consistently noted as an indicator of prosperity by residents in Chambogho and the other 15 villages they visited.
“We initially didn’t think of physical appearance as one of the indicators, but it turns out that they use it to distinguish the status of people in their communities,” said Mtisunge Matope, one of the five researchers on Maxton’s team from the Centre for Social Research at the University of Malawi.
Donald Chitekwe, another team member, was astounded to learn how important this variable was to the people. It was mentioned in 55 of the 64 discussion groups.
“Those who are well to do often look better,” Chitekwe said. “That’s because they have money, so they are able to buy lotions that nourish their skin; they can buy better clothes; they eat good, healthy food that makes them look better.”
Humans and emotions
While it would be difficult use a subjective indicator like physical appearance, the fact that it was highlighted by so many respondents speaks volumes about the importance of self-perception in relation to poverty: beyond the numbers, there are humans and their emotions.
FAO and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) released a report in December 2021 that provided a novel technique of assessing poverty in rural areas, where the bulk of the world’s poor live but where trustworthy and harmonised data is hard to come by.
The notion is that a better understanding of who the extreme poor are can help policymakers craft more precise measures to combat rural poverty and hunger. The R-MPI (Rural Multidimensional Poverty Index) is based on the commonly held belief that household income alone does not adequately reflect a person’s wellbeing. Food security, living standards, education, and health are all significant indicators of human growth.
Confirmations and surprises
“Overall, the field research confirmed that such a multidimensional approach is more accurate in capturing poverty in all its aspects. In fact, the team found that as much as 14% of the rural poor identified by the R-MPI in Malawi had not been identified as poor by traditional monetary metrics,” Tsoka said.
“That’s because the richest don’t work and employ other people to do almost everything,” Maxton said. “At the other end of the spectrum are people who are always working.”
Simultaneously, they were intrigued to learn that some of the official R-MPI indicators were barely acknowledged by the locals, while others were stated unexpectedly. For example, aside from physical attractiveness, the interviewers placed considerably greater importance on the quantity of work that persons completed than on other indications.
Education missing from list
“Education was not found to be useful in distinguishing between the rich and the poor,” Tsoka said.
The explanation: “Sometimes, the uneducated are richer than the educated. Because of this, people in Malawi do not see education as an indicator differentiating the poor from the rich.”
Another key indicator that came up during the conversations was one’s mood. Poverty was associated with being sad, whereas the wealthy were considered to be joyful and stress-free. This attitude was attributed to having all they needed in life, including enough food and money to spend on other things.
Furthermore, the researchers were astounded by how well the people they interviewed could estimate their neighbours’ relative wealth. When it came to housing, respondents went beyond the fundamentals — such as construction materials — and gave a far more detailed assessment, including the home’s amenities, surrounds, and so on.