Relationships as a dimension of poverty

The importance of social connectedness and interpersonal relationships has been well documented in accounts of what makes a ‘good life’ across time and across cultures. The right to take part in cultural life is enshrined in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

As Hickey and du Toit (2007: 2) point out, ‘social exclusion is not coterminous with poverty…but many poor people are excluded’. The absence of positive or supportive social relationships may be both a cause and a consequence of poverty, and is associated with shame and stigma.

Social exclusion, social isolation or lack of connectedness are themes occurring throughout the literature on multidimensional poverty, and are recognised as ‘missing dimensions’ in efforts to measure poverty in all its forms (Samuel et al., 2017).

What the research reveals about relationships

In recent decades, as poverty has increasingly been defined on the basis of more than income alone, the relationship between poverty and social exclusion has been explored. Social exclusion, or ‘the process through which individuals or groups are excluded from the society in which they live’ (Hickey and du Toit, 2007), can be active or passive. Active exclusion results from legal or constitutional provisions that prevent specific groups from full engagement in society (Sen, 2000). While active exclusion does not only target the poor, impoverished individuals or groups may be particularly vulnerable to this form of exclusion. Moreover, poverty may be created or deepened by active exclusion. Passive exclusion occurs through social rather than legal processes, and is intrinsically linked to poverty and isolation (Rogers et al., 2008: 246). Walker et al.’s (2013: 224) seven-country study found that people living in poverty internalised a shame, which was ‘externally reinforced in the family, the workplace and in dealings with officialdom’. A result of such shaming may be withdrawal and social isolation which, in turn, ‘inevitably reduces the social resources that people could draw on in times of crisis’ (Walker et al., 2013: 228). Thus, poverty, shame, social exclusion and social isolation are fundamentally and destructively linked.

As noted above, ‘social exclusion is not coterminous with poverty…but many poor people are excluded’ (Hickey and du Toit, 2007: 2). The absence of positive or supportive social relationships may be both a cause and a consequence of poverty, and is associated with shame and stigma. Social exclusion may also heighten vulnerability to poverty (de Haan, 2000). Sen (2000: 5) has argued that social relationships have both intrinsic and instrumental value. Exclusion from social relationships limits individuals’ opportunities leading to both social and economic impoverishment. Social exclusion and social isolation are closely related, with social isolation defined as inadequacy in both the quality and quantity of social relationships (Zavaleta et al., 2016: 6).

The relationship between poverty and social exclusion was highlighted in the Voices of the Poor (Narayan et al., 2000: 198), a study of multidimensional poverty with over 60,000 women and men living in poverty across 60 developing countries:

"Poor people remain poor because they are excluded from access to resources, opportunities, information and connections that the less poor have. The availability and strength of one’s ties and relationship with family, friends and the wider community is critical for receiving and giving support, financial and emotional, in everyday life but also to be called upon in times of need."

What the IMMP reveals about relationships

The participatory research on which the IMMP is based also identified complex interconnections between poverty, social exclusion and social isolation. Participants across sites spoke of the value of social relationships, both in terms of number and quality. A particularly important theme emerging across all countries was the importance of mutual reciprocity and support in times of crisis. When social relationships are weak, or non-existent, participants described vulnerability and the potential for deeper poverty to result. Reciprocity was an important element of social relationships that play a protective role in times of hardship. When an individual is unable to fulfil social expectations in terms of returning a favour or contributing to social activities, they are no longer able to draw on networks of support.

Many participants across the different sites described the inability to meet social and cultural expectations around contributing – for example, donating money to the family of the deceased at a funeral ceremony – as an indication of poverty. Participants described not only the inability to contribute materially as a dimension of poverty, but also the inability to present in an appropriate manner (in terms of clothing, hygiene and personal appearance) at community and social events. The inability to contribute and participate in social activities undermined social relationships and sometimes led to social isolation, either as a result of stigma from others or a sense of shame and humiliation.

While mutual reciprocity was an important theme emerging from the participatory research, so too were concerns about dependence. This was of particular concern for older people (aged 60 years and over), and particularly older men, who were dependent on others for their needs and could no longer actively contribute to livelihood, described feeling highly vulnerable. In these situations, dependence was a risk that could quickly lead to the inability to meet one’s basic material and physical requirements. Women also described the risks associated with dependence, particularly if they were widowed or abandoned by their husbands.

What the IMMP Relationships dimension measures

The relationships dimension of the IMMP consists of two themes: dependence and support, and participation in community events.

Theme 1: Dependence and support

The first theme, dependence and support, is scored based on one indicator of the same name, which is comprised from four variables. The first two variables consider whether respondents depend on people not living with them to help meet basic needs, and how frequently they are dependent on this type of support. The third variable measures the availability of support by considering the support received by the respondent, relative to the amount of support they needed. The fourth variable considers the ability of the respondent to reciprocate, or return the favour or help received.

Theme 2: Participation in community events

The second theme, participation in community events, has two indicators, the second of which is relevant only to women. The first indicator considers community event participation, and is constructed using four variables. The first two variables consider whether the respondent attended community events, and if not, their reasons for not attending. The third and fourth variables ask the respondent about their contributions to community events, and where relevant, their reasons for not contributing.

The second indicator is relevant only to women, as it considers women’s participation in events during menstruation. It is constructed from two variables: whether a menstruating woman missed any social activities, school or work during her period because she did not have sanitary products, and whether she missed any such activities because of stigma associated with menstruation.

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