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poverty dynamics and social mobility – reflections from the DSA conference

November 5, 2012

The Development Studies Association (DSA) held its annual conference last Saturday in London. In contrast to other years, this conference was planned for one day only, making it a packed schedule with interesting and thought-provoking plenary speeches and parallel panel sessions.

The Study Group on Multidimensional Poverty and Poverty Dynamics organised a panel that focused on poverty dynamics and social mobility, and particularly aimed to bring in perspectives from the ‘North’ and the ‘South’.

Heather Zhang from the University of Leeds presented results from a longitudinal qualitative study whereby she looked at households in urban China (Tianjin), how they did over time from 2003 to 2008 and the role of the means-tested ‘dibao’ social support scheme. The study’s results suggest that the ‘dibao’ scheme and its role in improving people’s lives should be considered from a multidimensional perspective, both in terms of the impact that it has (which may go beyond simply providing income) and in terms of linkages to other schemes (such as health care or education policies) as they all link together.

Solava Ibrahim from the University of Manchester shared comparative work on values and wellbeing in Egypt and the UK, where she used the same questionnaire to elicit views on what life aspirations and achievements matter most. She found that although people in Egypt and the UK may attach different weight to different fulfilled or unfulfilled aspirations, the same items appeared on their list, suggesting that indeed it may be possible to construct a grounded value-based theory of wellbeing that holds across both the North and South.

Meera Tiwari and Susannah Pickering-Saqqa from the University of East London presented the framework and first steps in a research project that aims to look at good practices at community level in overcoming deprivations in urban settings in London and Mumbai. Although a common framework is used to underpin the investigation in both contexts, an iterative process will be adopted whereby the research participants validate the framework for its particular situation. A key question for this research will be whether concurrent contextual understandings of deprivations and how they have been overcome allows for meaningful comparisons across the ‘North’ and the ‘South’.

Paul Dornan, in his role as discussant, provided further reflections and thoughts. Overall, he was positive about the attempts to draw on experiences from the North and South. Much of these papers were also felt to be very timely given the current crisis, particularly in the UK where it is imperative to maintain the momentum around issues of wellbeing in times of austerity. In terms of social mobility, he argued that we have to keep in mind what may drive such social mobility and whether we are looking at individual versus structural factors. The presentations in the panel focused mostly on the roles of the individual, and the role of schemes such as ‘dibao’ therein, but less on the larger structural factors that may enable or impede social mobility.   

Comments from the audience pertained to the use of terms – poverty, wellbeing, deprivation – and how those hold across different contexts. Presenters indicated that the use of language and particular terms shifted over the course of their work to avoid confusion or specify more clearly what was meant in a particular context.

The points raised by the discussant and audience illustrate the value of trying to bring two worlds together in a discussion that obviously has parallels – trying to escape poverty, fulfil expectations and move up the social ladder, but also the struggle in trying to do that in such a way that it does not undermine context-specificity but also allows for meaningful comparisons.  

Expect more from the DSA Study Group on Multidimensional Poverty and Poverty Dynamics in the future on these topics. If you are interested, do not hesitate to get in touch with me or any of the co-convenors of this study group (Laura Camfield, Solava Ibrahim, Meera Tiwari)

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