Let’s start with understanding sufficientarianism. This is an idea related to distributive justice. Sufficientarian justice aims to make sure each of us has enough, establishing a threshold of sufficiency for basic needs. According to American political economist John Roemer, it is ‘the doctrine advising the ethical observer to maximise the number of people who have enough in any situation.’ There are also questions arising about sufficientarianism. For example, should people be concerned about distributive issues above the ‘threshold’? 

Sufficientarianism is an important concept in the economic policy-making sphere. Two conflicting perspectives arise out of it. On the one hand, sufficientarianism ensures that the political focus remains on the well-being of those most vulnerable. On the other hand, it tends to be reclusive when the ‘point of sufficiency’ is reached. This writeup explores the second perspective – how modern poverty analysis can better understand the dynamics of people moving in and out of poverty. 

Consumption-based poverty estimates

Poverty-measuring methods are often contested. Every measure provides a different perspective specific to the context at hand. Developing nations, including Bangladesh, usually estimate poverty using consumption-based measures, such as the cost of basic needs (CBN). The CBN metric uses consumption expenditure rather than income to measure living standards. 

Poverty-measuring methods are often contested. Every measure provides a different perspective specific to the context at hand.

In Bangladesh, the CBN method first computes a food poverty line based on the cost of 11 basic food items: rice, wheat, pulses, milk, oil, meat, fish, potatoes, other vegetables, sugar and fruits. This food consumption bundle provides a minimal nutritional requirement of 2,122 kcal per day per person. Then two separate income lines are charted. The first non-food income line is the total per capita expenditure and the second is food per capita expenditure. Finally, these are added to the food poverty line to formulate poverty rates (upper poverty line and lower poverty line). Therefore, by consumption measures, families falling below the upper poverty line are poor while those below the lower poverty line are extremely poor.

Bangladesh’s 2022 poverty statistics from its periodical welfare measurement survey, the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES), reveal that 18.7% of the population are in poverty while 5.6% are in extreme poverty. These figures represent the broadly understood national headcount rates for poverty. Meanwhile, the poverty gap index goes one step further in defining the depth of the consumption/income gap for those below the poverty line. Hence, Bangladesh’s poverty estimates from the HIES show that the poor and extreme poor have an income–consumption shortfall of 3.8% and 0.9%, respectively. In this poverty analysis, an additional index, the squared poverty gap index, is used to measure the severity of poverty. This puts more weight on a poor person’s income/expenditure when s/he falls deeper under the poverty line. 

The positive takeaway from Bangladesh’s latest poverty data is a declining trend in all spheres of poverty measures: incidence, intensity and inequality of poverty. However, what about the people above the poverty line and their vulnerability to poverty?

The positive takeaway from Bangladesh’s latest poverty data is a declining trend in all spheres of poverty measures… 

Exploring the multiverse of poverty

An alternative way to analyse poverty is to focus on ‘vulnerability.’ This can reveal the multifaceted deprivations that people face. This can be seen in the multidimensional poverty index (MPI), which measures different deprivations across populations. It combines incidence of poverty with the intensity of people’s deprivations. 

The MPI determines a person’s poverty situation by an established cut-off point. It uses a ‘deprivation score’ for every individual (or household in many cases). This deprivation score is computed from the weighted average of deprivations, using myriad socioeconomic indicators, experienced by individuals. Consequently, a person is considered to be multidimensionally poor if s/he is deprived in at least a third of the weighted indicators. 

The incidence of poverty is estimated using the headcount ratio. For Bangladesh, this reveals that about 24.6% of the population are multidimensionally poor according to the 2022 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In terms of the intensity of poverty, it is estimated that the poor are deprived in 42.2% of the dimensions. Finally, the multidimensional poverty index value for Bangladesh is 0.104.

The index, originally developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative in collaboration with UNDP, utilises the three dimensions of health, education and living standards. Each dimension is given equal weight, to enable comparative inferences on poverty across countries. 

In contrast to money-metric (income and expenditure) measures of poverty, the MPI can shed light on the effect of deprivation. According to UNDP’s 2019 report, 45.1% of the multidimensional poverty in Bangladesh owes to deprivations in living standards, with deprivations in education at 37.6% and those in health at 17.3%. This can enlighten Bangladeshi policy-makers on how to target issues of deprivation and ensure the longevity of successful anti-poverty policies. 

The 2022 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index also reports the share of the population who are vulnerable to poverty. As of 2019, 18.2% of Bangladeshis are vulnerable to falling into the poverty trap. To bring this into perspective, a staggering 31 million Bangladeshis are vulnerable to becoming multidimensionally poor despite being above the poverty line.

New challenges 

Poverty is not a homogeneous experience. A 2023 study on urban poverty conducted by Binayak Sen of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies finds that about 51% of the poor in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, are the ‘newly poor’ after the covid-19 pandemic. This gives a key insight into the severe vulnerability to poverty that exists. 

Poverty is not a homogeneous experience.

Studies attempting to model vulnerability to poverty are gaining relevance in modern times in a context of growing uncertainty arising as a result of economic and public health crises. A previous, 2003, post-Asian financial crisis study in Indonesia by economists Asep Suryahadi and Sudarno Sumarto formulated vulnerability as the probability of per capita consumption falling below the poverty line. The study framework defined households based on their chronic poverty situation. It went one step further to determine vulnerability based on consumption estimates. 

The study found that vulnerability among people had ‘unambiguously increased.’ The share of vulnerable people nearly doubled after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The implications of such revelations show the ever-changing nature of poverty. They invite policy-makers to think whether having ‘sufficiency’ should be the priority of poverty alleviation policies.  

Success with the ‘graduation approach’

The ultra-poor graduation model is a proven approach through which the living conditions of the extremely poor are ameliorated. The Ultra Poor Graduation Programme, pioneered by BRAC in 2002, addresses the ‘poorest of the poor,’ or the ‘ultra-poor,’ as a subsection of those in extreme poverty. Ultra-poor individuals consume less than 80% of their daily nutritional requirement despite spending 80% of their income on food. The graduation model is a carefully sequenced intervention, usually in the form of asset transfer, interest-free loans, facilitated access to government safety net programmes, skills training, matched savings, health care service support and community mobilisation over a two-year period. 

Evidence from a randomised controlled trial research approach in six countries, released in 2015, and a separate study conducted in Bangladesh highlighted the need to scale up such programmes, given their effectiveness. These programmes boost livelihoods, income and health among the ultra-poor while improving their poverty conditions. The efficacy of such programmes lies in their continuation even after the targeted beneficiary rises above the defined poverty line. 

The report on BRAC’s Ultra Poor Graduation Programme in 2017 reminds us that, ‘Implementing organisations should keep in mind that “graduation” is not synonymous with a threshold past which households are suddenly resilient to the pressures of poverty.’

The role of changing narratives

For most of us, the clock on the wall reads a minute of a certain hour. But, for the many in the transient state of poverty, time stands still. Our capacity to absorb information, especially of things beyond our control, can be overwhelming at times. But how we see a problem lies in how it is narrated to us, and how we narrate it to the world. Telling a story based on the vulnerabilities, deprivations, shortcomings, frustrations and anxiety of people can draw parallels to many of our life experiences. 

Many people are still struggling to escape vicious poverty traps. Evidence shows that poverty is deeply complex. Moreover, the issue of vulnerability of people above the poverty threshold is a serious point often left out in policy discourse. Hence, everyone, including policy-makers, need to rethink the sufficientarianism notion of poverty. Will sufficiency-focused policies suffice?   


Photo © Mahmud Hossain Opu

Ishmam Rayan Haq is a Research Officer at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies. He is an economist. His research focuses on poverty alleviation, coping mechanisms, climate adaptability and migration. He is pursuing his graduate studies in economics at the University of Warwick, UK.