Our Perspectives

Six ways to define poverty, according to 5-year-olds


How kids define povertyAsked to define poverty, kids give insightful answers. Photo: Renato Contreras/UNDP Peru

Forget about the ‘grandmother rule’ of journalism—or the ‘aunt rule’, depending on the country. According to this principle, you have to explain your message as simply as possible so even your grandmother, or aunt, will understand.

I wonder why it’s never the grandfather or the uncle. But that’s a whole other topic... 

After lecturing to a group of 20 kindergarten students on what UNDP does (sustainable development, disaster risk reduction and other weird terms) I realize that the rule should be: communicate clearly enough so even a 5-year-old will understand your message.

The easiest way to explain the concept of ‘resilience’ was to remind them of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. In the story, you’ll remember, the brick house (yes, the one that took more time and effort to build) was the only one that withstood the wolf’s ‘huffing and puffing’ (and very heavy wind and rain too, the children understood).

Surprisingly, when I asked the group of New York City girls and boys from different cultural backgrounds what they thought poverty meant, they answered, in this order:

  1. “Not having a proper house.”
  2. “Not having a proper school.”
  3. “Not having enough to eat.”
  4. “In some places girls can’t go to school.” [A boy actually said that.]
  5. “An earthquake hit my country and people lost everything.” [The child’s parents are from Nepal]
  6. “Not having enough money.”

Note that only the last child mentioned money or income, contrary to the traditional concept that being poor means living on less than US$1.25 or $4 a day.

Surprisingly, these children’s answers don’t differ much from those collected by focus groups in 26 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, part of our upcoming Regional Human Development Report (HDR) on “multidimensional progress” and well-being beyond income.

Both men and women stressed “having a job”, “not needing to skip meals”, “seeing their kids finish school” and “having access to healthcare” as some of their top-of-mind answers to what “progress” and “well-being” means for them. How much money they earned was mentioned of course, but seldom as a top priority. This qualitative assessment and the Report’s full results will be made public in a few months.

As we enter 2016, countries will start to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This will require a new way of thinking beyond the traditional public policy silos of health, education, nutrition and job creation, to name a few.

An integrated approach is crucial, cutting across the multiple goals. Eradicating poverty will mean addressing its multiple aspects. It’s the first of the 17 SDGs, which are all interrelated. Even kids understand it.

Blog post Agenda 2030 Sustainable development Poverty reduction and inequality Carolina Azevedo speakers corner Development Effectiveness Jobs and livelihoods