The Effects of Surface Mining on Livelihood of Farmers and Its Implication for Agricultural Extension Work in Amansie West District of Ghana

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IDS Working Paper 216

Conceptualising destitution

Stephen Devereux

December 2003



© Institute of Development Studies, 2003 ISBN 1 85864 812 2


Summary The concept of “destitution” presents challenges to several preoccupations of contemporary poverty discourse: the definition of poverty (narrowly income-based versus broader multi-dimensional approaches); the measurement of poverty (quantitative versus participatory methods); and the temporal dimension (chronic versus transitory poverty). Recognition of the multi-dimensionality of poverty has rarely been reflected in integrated analytical or policy frameworks. The Millennium Development Goals focus on simple quantitative targets, and fail to differentiate between degrees of poverty. By contrast, this paper argues that destitution is intrinsically a multi-dimensional concept, and it emphasises the severity of poverty – in contrast to “chronic poverty”, which emphasises the duration of poverty. A definition of destitution is proposed with three components: inability to meet subsistence needs, assetlessness, and dependence on transfers. A conceptual framework is developed for analysing destitution that draws on the “sustainable livelihoods” approach.



Summary 1 2 3 4 5 6 Introduction Destitution in the poverty discourse Defining destitution Local concepts of destitution in Ethiopia Analysing destitution Conclusion References iii 1 2 8 13 17 23 24

Figure 5.1 A livelihoods approach to conceptualising destitution 20

Table 4.1 Local terms and phrases for the poorest group in the community 16



1 Introduction


Unlike “poverty” or “food insecurity”, “destitution” is an undefined term in the development literature. Although the word is often used, with the colloquial meaning of severe poverty and dependence on the goodwill of others, there is no accepted technical definition, nor does a standardised set of tools exist for analysing and quantifying destitution.2 Recently, an apparently deepening livelihoods crisis in the historically famine-prone area of Wollo in highland Ethiopia motivated a research project into the extent, causes and characteristics of destitution among this highly vulnerable population. In the absence of a definition, the Destitution Study team developed our own working definition and conceptual framework, drawing on theoretical and empirical literature, as well as local perceptions of poverty and destitution that were articulated by villagers during fieldwork in Wollo. This paper presents the results of that conceptual work. Broadly, this paper addresses the question: ‘What is destitution?’ Specifically, it considers four conceptual and analytical issues: • • • •

the concept of destitution in the poverty literature; the definition of destitution, both theoretically and in operational terms;

local perceptions of destitution in Ethiopia;
how to analyse destitution: introducing the conceptual framework for the research.

This paper is structured as follows. The next section discusses the meaning of destitution. It first reviews the theoretical and international literature on destitution and its relationship to concepts of poverty. It then develops an operational definition of “destitution” for purposes of the Destitution Study research project; considers how well this definition fits with local people’s understanding and experience of extreme poverty; and lays out the livelihoods-based conceptual framework that informed the methodology design, data collection and data analysis. Although the project was confined to three zones of Amhara Region – South Wollo, North Wollo and Wag Hamra – the intention was to develop an analytical framework and a methodology that are generalisable to the study of destitution elsewhere in Amhara Region, other regions of Ethiopia, and beyond.



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