Breaking down research silos

I had the pleasure of attending UNU-WIDER’s ‘Responding to crises’ conference last week. The theme was highly topical and session topics far-reaching, which makes the task of teasing out core ideas difficult. It may seem, as a result, that research on crises occurs in silos.

However, as a poverty researcher, I noticed that many of the key issues broached at the event are very similar to issues raised in debates in the poverty literature. I would suggest that when we start to look at the debates more closely, there are relationships between the so-called silos and ways exist to integrate them. We can see this demonstrated in three themes from the poverty literature which were seen at the conference: (1) multidimensionality; (2) stocks and flows; (3) causation.

Watch Paul Shaffer's presentation at the conference.
Poverty is multidimensional

For a long time, it has been recognized that poverty is not simply about low purchasing power or preference fulfilment, proxied by income or consumption expenditure. Important statements to this effect have been made by Amartya Sen and Robert Chambers, among others. The absence of health, education, personal security, dignity, and so on, figure among the dimensions of deprivation. There is a growing body of literature on multidimensional poverty indices and analyses, including research work done at UNU-WIDER. 

At this conference, multidimensionality was reflected in sessions which addressed the effects of crises on hunger, personal insecurity via conflict, vulnerability, education, health, water, and gender violence.

At this conference, multidimensionality was reflected in sessions which addressed the effects of crises on hunger, personal insecurity via conflict, vulnerability, education, health, water, and gender violence. All of the above may indeed be instrumentally valuable in bringing about other things deemed worthwhile, but they also are intrinsically valuable as constituents of well-/ill-being. This may be restating the obvious but I think it bears repeating.

Poverty status (stocks) and poverty dynamics (flows)

There is a distinction in the poverty literature between the analysis of poverty status, or the stock of poverty at one or more points in time, and the analysis of poverty dynamics, or the flows of individuals and households into and out of poverty over time. This distinction maps quite closely onto the distinction made in the opening plenary by Tony Addison and Rachel Gisselquist between the continuing crises of poverty, hunger and diseases of poverty, on the one hand, and unexpected crises due to wars, natural disasters, pandemic and economic shocks. 

Until relatively recently, most analysis of poverty was about populations below the poverty line at one or more points in time. This allows for estimates of population percentages, trends, characteristics and inferences about causes. Poverty dynamics is different. It facilitates the distinction between at least four population groups: (i) the chronically poor; (ii) entrants into poverty; (iii) escapees from poverty; and (iv) the non-poor. Analysis tends to pay special attention to those who fall into poverty or are at risk of entering poverty. Otherwise stated, it is about vulnerability — or downside risk, i.e., the risk of falling into poverty — triggered by shocks or hazards. 

In the broader literature the six most important forms of shocks facing populations in the Global South are: (1) conflict, (2) illness, (3) natural disaster, (4) harvest failure, (5) terms of trade deterioration, and (6) loss of employment. All were covered in different sessions in this conference. Whether or not such shocks lead to downward spirals depends on their severity and frequency, exposure of populations, and response — i.e. strategies of coping or adaptation, which often fall under the heading of ‘resilience’. All of these themes were also brought up in this conference. By and large, the language of flows is the language of ‘unexpected crises’ at this conference.  

Why distinctions matter

These distinctions between poverty status and dynamics — between poverty stocks and flows — matter for two reasons. First, the magnitude of transitory poverty is quite large and over many time periods, or spells, it can dwarf the chronic component of poverty. It should be noted, however, that measurement error is inflating the size of transitory poverty and the point does not generalize to all dimensions of deprivation. Evidence was presented in the conference session on hunger and food security that the chronic component of malnutrition is greater than the transitory part. Still, transitory poverty is a very significant phenomenon which merits policy attention.

Second, the policy response may be systematically different according to the underlying issues, though it may overlap, as clearly stated in the conference session on responding to economic shocks. Policies to forestall descents into poverty, to minimize downside risk, may be different from those aimed at promoting long-term growth or poverty reduction. They include measures of social protection such as insurance schemes, diversification of sources of livelihood, capital controls to guard again currency risk, and so on. 

Two stories about poverty: ‘production functions’ and structural roots 

Causation is complex and hard to demonstrate empirically. There are also many different ways to think about the causation of poverty. There is a distinction, however, in the poverty literature between viewing poverty in terms of a ‘production function’, on the one hand, and in terms of structural roots, on the other. I will refer here to income/consumption poverty, but the core idea generalizes with the appropriate modifications.

One approach views the causes of poverty as a lack of sources of income or consumption growth. The implicit idea is that of a production function — which shows the relation between inputs and outputs in the production process — where output or income is on the left-hand side and various sources of income are on the right-hand side. Examples include land, labour, physical capital, human capital, technology, credit, etc. 

In this perspective, poverty is due to low levels of these variables and is remedied by activities such as improving agricultural yields, extending credit, investing in health, education, rural infrastructure, and so on. I heard similar analyses in a number of conference sessions, suggesting it is widely held way to address the ’continuing crises’ or poverty status mentioned above, and often the model underlying development assistance. 

Another way to look at the causation of poverty is in terms of structural or systemic roots. In this view, attention shifts to the nature and functioning of the global economic system, global trade regime, national economies, various subnational structures, and so forth. The analysis of structural roots is fundamentally, then, about the exercise of power be it political, economic, military, caste, class or gender-based. This is the world of political economy, where the first questions posed when attempting to explain social phenomena such as poverty are ‘who benefits’ or ‘whose interests are served’. 

Such analysis figured prominently at the conference, in sessions on the political economy of food price volatility, reform of the global economic system, and reforming the global trade regime. Issues of agenda-setting, decision-making authority and the relationship between economic and political power came out very forcefully in these discussions. As above, all of this matters in that our thinking about ‘what to do’ will be driven by our understanding or ‘what is causing what’.

Linking different research approaches

To conclude, the issues of multidimensionality, stocks and flows, and causation — which have figured prominently in debates about the meaning and measurement of poverty — seem to encapsulate certain themes discussed at the ‘Responding to crises’ conference. They highlight the relationships between the so-called research silos represented at the conference. Otherwise stated, they are useful in showing how the disparate conference themes may be integrated in a way which does justice to the complexity of real-world crises while forging linkages between different research approaches. 

Paul Shaffer is Associate Professor at the Department of International Development Studies, Trent University, Canada. 

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