Resolving chronic poverty seems simple. In the abstract, at least, it is: Take Problem A (chronic poverty, in this instance), and apply Solution B (give poor people money). In reality, such an approach is ruinous, as a hand-out fails to address any of the underlying causes of poverty, then compounds the issue by giving people everything they need without the training or skills to actually build a robust economy, creating a cycle of dependency.
If there were a simple means to bring about a permanent conclusion to the simple problem of poverty, we would have all collectively enjoyed centuries of collective prosperity and progress. The problem is as simple as ever, but that simplicity is what makes poverty such a stubborn burden: There will never be one simple answer to address it.
So, then: Let’s try sophistication and complexity. In order to appropriately and effectively resolve poverty, it is important to look as deeply as possible into every aspect and build an understanding that captures all the contributing elements on both sides of the equation. Along the way, Outreach is committed to practicing vulnerability and transparency as an organization, sharing not only with our donors and board members, but most importantly, ensuring that our field partners have an equal stake in their success.
Outreach’s work, while data-driven, is equally powered by personal connections and unquantifiable notions like hope and trust, to say nothing of the spirit of teamwork and accountability that permeates every project and goal.
Including everyone can get complicated without a means of standardized measurement. Enter MPAT, or the Multi-Dimensional Poverty Assessment Tool, which was developed in 2009 by the International Fund for Agricultural Development. It is measures poverty’s presence in a community, providing a baseline that allows a means to measure progress and compare changes made over time as residents and facilitators work to build a stronger, more prosperous future.
MPAT doesn’t prove causation— that is, it isn’t a tool to measure the “why” of poverty— instead, it is concerned with “what.” A 72-question survey is conducted among households in a community to solicit answers that can be assessed in a number of ways to address different concerns, alongside another, shorter survey administered to community leaders and local education and healthcare professionals. For example, the response to the question “Can you read a newspaper?” can identify an issue ripe for resolution by assessing to a number of different factors: community engagement, motivation, social awareness, and literacy, to name a few. The results can be examined to reveal any number of things, depending on the questions one seeks to answer. Survey questions encompass 10 dimensions, ranging from nutrition to gender equality, to determine “the poverty situation” in new communities, as well as to enhance the understanding in established communities where Outreach has worked for some time.
After working in a community for a few years, MPAT surveys can give a concrete basis for informed inference and highlight areas where additional research might determine whether or not Outreach’s approach is contributing to changes in a community’s situation. For instance, if the community prioritizes improving its access to clean water, MPAT can monitor the progress of the quality of water, as assessed by MPAT, and use the results to contribute to evaluating the strategies being used to address this issue and assess if any actual qualitative improvement is evident. If not, the MPAT data can then be employed to reshape projects to better meet the needs and realities of a community and give them their best chance at success.
Outreach’s Nicaraguan team, Alcance Nicaragua (AN), one of our most established, seasoned field programs, was tasked with implementing MPAT in the field after Outreach’s Philippines team conducted a few rounds of testing to determine best practices. First and foremost, it was apparent that facilitators undergo extensive MPAT training to ensure that understanding wasn’t just an outcome, but a guiding principle. For months, Outreach HQ staff conducted study sessions over Skype with AN staff, reading the MPAT User’s Guide and getting oriented for the work ahead.
The AN team conducted a double-blind Spanish translation to minimize discrepancies between the original English-language surveys, AN hired 30 local “enumerators,” to act as impartial survey administrators whose presence would not potentially affect the answers given. After an intensive eight-day training period that included team-building, role-play, survey practice and MPAT training exercises, the whole gaggle of young, energetic enumerators went forth to gather survey data in 16 communities the field comprised of 473 households and assisted by 16 village leaders.
The resulting data will provide further institutional experience for Outreach’s ongoing expansion of MPAT implementation in all our communities by 2019, as well as serving as a baseline for comparison every two or three years, when the surveys are circulated anew in the same areas for a fresh round of insights. In the meantime, this data is used by AN staff to enhance their work in the field, and most importantly, it is shared with all 16 communities from which it emanated, preserving their agency and empowerment in identifying and processing the issues they face.
Knowledge, Data, and Understanding
Data is inherently bloodless and sterile, and Outreach’s work, while data-driven, is equally powered by personal connections and unquantifiable notions like hope and trust, to say nothing of the spirit of teamwork and accountability that permeates every project and goal. As such, MPAT data is dispersed to all parties involved— field and HQ staff, our supporters, and the community partners from whom the data was collected.
Perhaps this is the simplest aspect of MPAT’s elegant complexity: After all the time and energy contributed from all sides, all the effort devoted to ensuring the data is valid and accurate; after all the results are gathered, entered, and collated, everyone involved gains a new level of understanding. An arc drawn from the top-down, another from the bottom-up, meeting in the middle to create an inclusive circle. Each new cycle contracts the circle’s circumference, shrinking until it is no larger than the period used to bring chronic poverty’s story to a conclusion.