Using Evidence to Reduce Poverty in the World’s Poorest Places

A Rwandan farmer tends to her crops, a crucial component of household resiliency in rural parts of the country

The first Sustainable Development Goal is to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” Underlying that simple call to action is a complex requirement — to be able to understand and measure poverty in all its forms everywhere. A new multidimensional approach to evaluating economic development that looks beyond income to measure education, health and living standards, shows great promise for improving livelihoods in some of Africa’s most vulnerable communities. In fact, analysis using the Multidimensional Poverty Index developed by the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, found poverty greatly reduced in 30 of 35 African countries during the surveyed period 2005–2014.

While the Multidimensional Poverty Index is undoubtedly useful, as it identifies the sectors where the most impact can be made, it is not novel. Global Communities, a community-based global development organization, has experience using a similar multidimensional approach in Rwanda, a country rated as having a “stellar performance,” in the recently released global index.

Global Communities has been working in Rwanda since 2005 on USAID/PEPFAR-funded programs related to building household resilience, poverty reduction and access to healthcare. This work was designed as an integrated approach to development, tackling multiple challenges. Through this work we learned that in order to address poverty we needed an effective way to measure and understand its changing dynamics.

In 2012, Global Communities developed a household resiliency index, or HRI, to evaluate households’ ability to manage their health, social and financial needs. The index was based on the government of Rwanda’s Ubedehe social economic scale and, by measuring multidimensional poverty, was able to determine into which of three categories of poverty families lived: households ready to grow, households struggling to make ends meet and households in destitution.

We had a baseline study from the beginning of second phase of our work in 2010, but wanted to be able not to just measure the change at the end of five years, but see what was getting better and what might be getting worse for the families with whom we worked.

In 2012, 2013 and 2014, we took a sample of 1,000 households out of more than 71,000 whom we were targeting. By the end of the program 83% of the beneficiary households included in the three-year study graduated to or maintained higher levels of resiliency. Analyzing the findings of the 2014 survey, 9% were categorized in the highest socio-economic category of ‘households ready to grow’; 74% were categorized as ‘households struggling to make ends meet’; and 17% were in the category: ‘households in destitution’. While 2014 saw a decline in household economic resilience compared to 2013, there was still an improvement in resilience over the 2012 results and as measured against the households’ Ubudehe Categories assigned in 2010. See graph below:

Based on follow-up research conducted in late 2014, most of the households that failed to progress out of the lowest socio-economic category (17%) had suffered shocks — the most commonly cited being health shocks, particularly HIV/AIDS, chronic illness and physical or mental disability, and economic related shocks, such as business decline or loss of a household asset. We were able to survey them in more depth and find out some of the causes — family alcoholism or disease, for example, and identify that they needed specialized social protection.

Our program in Rwanda was a holistic approach to poverty reduction. Program services included subsides to access education and health services, agriculture production enhancement through farmer field schools, nutritional improvements through cooking demonstrations, kitchen gardens and Positive Deviance Hearth groups (nutritional and behavioral change), economic growth through saving and lending groups, and, early childhood development and psychosocial support.

Yearly results shown by the HRI helped inform our program design and realign resources to the areas where they were needed. By measuring a broad range of indicators we were able to assess what was no longer as necessary and what was most necessary each year. For example, in the first few years of the program, we focused a lot of resources on providing subsidies for school fees. It became clear through the index that this was no longer as pressing a need, so we began to phase it out — a reduction of 25% the first year, 50% the next, and 75% in the third year. This helped families prepare for the loss of subsidy and develop their own sustainability plans.

This review allowed Global Communities to realign its program funds to address the need for more vocational training opportunities for youth as stated in Rwanda’s revised Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy launched in 2012. Between 2013 and 2014 the program provided technical and vocational education scholarships and life skills training for more than 5,000 youth. Vocational training included trades such as construction, electricity, vehicle mechanics, information and communications technology, hairdressing, plumbing and others. “The vocational training is a viable option for thousands of young Rwandese, offering also a wide range of technical trades for those who suffered of malnutrition during the pre- and post-genocide years.

Today, Global Communities continues to develop the indices we use to be better tools of measurement that can inform project design. The use of regular measurement of multidimensional poverty has helped us to realign our programs to meet the evolving needs of vulnerable communities, and has resulted in helping to move increasing numbers of families out of poverty. We applaud the creation of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative in helping with project design, alignment of resources and re-alignment. And while doing so, we encourage those who develop such indices to fine tune them as we learn more about effective monitoring and evaluation, to help global development organizations achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.