Are women really 70% of the world’s poor? How do we know?

February 3, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Doing research for advocacy (which is a large part of my job) is a balancing act. The pressure to come up with clear findings and ‘killer facts’ that speak to policy-makers can easily tip over into something much more questionable.

I once challenged a colleague at another NGO on a ‘fact’ she was using on Bolivia.

London's Senate House, inspiration for Orwell's 'Ministry of Truth'

London's Senate House, inspiration for Orwell's 'Ministry of Truth'

‘Well, it’s politically true’, she replied with a grin. Should we use facts we know are wrong, because we like their message? Surely the answer has to be no.

I remembered this when mulling over a favourite NGO and UN factoid: ‘70% of the world’s poor are women’. Its source is decidedly murky: the 1995 Human Development Report is often cited, but it gives no reference for how it arrived at the figure, or way of checking it, and contributes to the confusion by saying in the main text ‘more than 70% are female’ (i.e. including girls) but then simply refers to ‘women’ in the executive summary. The 1994 IFAD report “The State of World Rural Poverty” is also named, with doubts expressed at the time about its numbers.

Other friends tell me it was around long before that, but no-one can point me to the original source. But in a way that’s beside the point – these ‘magic numbers’ take on a life of their own through sheer circulation and repetition. Note that this particular figure hasn’t changed in the intervening 15 years – that alone should ring alarm bells.

Let’s assume the HDR means women and girls. With the latest poverty stats, that adds up to 980m women and girls living below the $1.25 a day poverty line, and 420m men and boys. That either means that women-headed households are particularly poor, or that within households more women and girls are poor than men and boys. But as far as I’m aware, official income poverty figures don’t drill down below the household to say ‘in this family, this child/adult is poor, and this child/adult isn’t’ – that would be even harder to do for income (which is what the 70% stat refers to) than for consumption.

So either the number is based on long-lost research on the division of income within a (presumably) fairly small number of households scaled up to a global figure (and if so, please put me out of my misery and send me the reference), or the only explanation of the figures is that families headed by women explain the difference.

But to make the 70% figure stand up, you would need 560 million women-headed households (i.e. the difference between 980m poor women and 420m poor men), all of them below the poverty line. With an average of 2-3 kids per household, that is more than the total number of poor households – clearly the figure is nonsense.

Before you brand me as an incorrigible reactionary (OK, it’s probably too late for that…..), I’m not denying the existence or huge importance of gender inequality. On the contrary, gender is undoubtedly one of the world’s great faultlines of distribution and injustice. Ownership of assets is hugely distorted between men and women (probably much more than 70/30), as is time spent on reproductive activities (child rearing, cooking, cleaning etc). The same is probably true of consumption, and if we could find a credible way of measuring income inside the black box of the household, we might well find a big discrepancy there too. All the more reason to get our facts right, no?

street childrenSome ‘political truths’ diverge even further from reality. UNICEF campaigners on street children used to say that Brazil had 7-8 million of them – another stat that rapidly acquired a life of its own. Yet when researchers actually tried to count them, setting out in the middle of the night to the places where street kids sleep rough, they found fewer than 1,000 sleeping in Brazil’s two major cities, Rio and Sao Paulo, combined. Scaling up to the whole country, and scaling up by a factor of 3 in case they missed some, one researcher came up with a total of 38,000. That’s a lot of kids sleeping rough, but only about one two hundredth of UNICEF’s imaginary battalions.

Every expert (feminist economists, poverty researchers etc) I’ve consulted on this agrees the number is dodgy, and yet people just keep on using it, presumably because its message is one they want to promote. But isn’t that short sighted? Sure, any attempt to produce a simple, powerful narrative out of inevitably messy data entails some level of violence to the complexity of real life. And simple narratives are precisely what stick in people’s heads, improve policy, change attitudes and bring about change. Insist too much on the intellectual purity of the ‘everything is complicated, context specific and difficult’ camp and you will be right but completely ineffectual. But depart too far from reality, go too far down the road of ‘political truth’ and you undermine your own legitimacy – why should people believe anything else you say on the issue? I reckon ‘70% of the world’s poor are women’ crosses the line. But please someone, prove me wrong!

For more excavation on the 70% stat, see this paper by LSE professor Sylvia Chant.

February 3, 2010
Duncan Green