Vulnerability, Multidimensionality and Poverty: Opportunities to improve public policy in a country under permanent reconstruction

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By Leonardo Moreno, Executive Director of the Superación de la Pobreza Foundation

Translated by Anthony Rauld

Every attempt to objectively quantify such a complex phenomenon, like the poverty that affects our societies, will always be just that: an attempt to reflect, in terms of consumption capacity, a reality that resists such a limited measure.  This is why Chile’s incorporation of the Multidimensional Poverty Measure (MPM) represents a step towards more comprehensive indicators of reality.

In 2015, the Casen public opinion poll included for the second time this measure as a complement to income measurement, and even though it is still a synthetic measure that purports to capture a complex reality, the MPM deepens our understanding of various areas related to the overall well-being of communities, and helps to explore the heterogeneity of the phenomenon of poverty, just as we showed empirically with our 2010 investigation, Voices of Poverty: The meanings, representations and feelings of poverty throughout Chile, and also helps to construct a more comprehensive and integral vision of our country.

The MPM added to the already existing four dimensions of the 2013 poll (employment, health, work, and housing) the areas of “housing and environment” and “networks and social cohesion”, which are crucial elements for understanding situations that involve discrimination or the perception of insecurity, and how these affect the lives of those who experience poverty.  This new measurement has challenged certain negative practices associated with social policy in Chile, including standardization (a homogeneity applied to what is, in fact, a very diverse geography and culture), focalization (which although has evolved to include home visits to create a register of observed conditions, these still focus on material possessions, and not on other human needs), a lack of citizen participation (zero impact on any of the political cycles) and centralism (scarce political and budgetary autonomy for local and regional governments), among others.  The development of a multidimensional approach contributes to a more humanist perspective and allows us to recognize the shortcomings of focalized efforts in order to buttress family incomes, outside of the job market.

In this vein, the MPM is an opportunity for our public policies to rise to the level of the same indicators that are used to analyze and make decisions.  With this in mind, some of the things that can close the gap between policies and the MPM include: intersectoral coordination, the relevance—and incorporation—of a more territorial approach, a change in focus from those who “have less” to those who need to “do more” and “be more” in the social context, and a real and effective social participation, which begins with the ability to listen to the affected communities.

Behind this view there are two complementary approaches: one that has to do with training, developed by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who suggests that poverty is the result of an inadequate acquisition of skills on the part of human beings due to the absence of opportunities to develop them, which leads to many people not being able to choose their own path in life.  Another approach is the theory of vulnerability, which analyzes abilities, within households and communities, to deal with traumas or tragedies, whether they are internal (an illness) or external: loss of employment, socionatural disasters, etc.  These reveal the level of development of communities in relation to the tools they have, or don’t have, at their disposal to deal with problems.  So, a 7.3 (Richter) earthquake in Haiti in 2010, which caused 316,000 deaths, is evidence of a society that is fragile compared to the earthquake of that same year in Chile, which measured 8.8 (Richter), in which 525 people died.

Natural disasters reveal, each time they occur, the existence of extremely fragile communities without adequate public policy protections capable of reducing the risks they consistently face.  This applies to the population that was devastated by the wildfires in Chile this last summer.

The challenges we face as a country, and particularly the state and its public policies, is to reduce the risks that households face.  This is where the “Structure of Opportunities” (EO) comes into play (as laid out by Structure of Opportunities and Social Vulnerabilities: Recent Conceptual Approximations by Carlos H. Filgueira).  The EO of a society is made up of those opportunities that the state, the market, and civil society provide, which allow households to utilize their own resources, turning them into assets—or facilitating the creation of new resources.  Every household has resources (tangible and intangible goods), assets (resources that are mobilized to take advantage of the structure) and liabilities (barriers that prevent the utilization of certain resources, for example, machismo).

Disasters and Vulnerabilities

It is clear that Chile can no longer continue to face large-scale socionatural disasters, which are, for various reasons—including climate change—more and more frequent, with the same public policy approach, the same institutional structure, and the same type of management applied up until today.  The results reveal the absence of systemic prevention, of planning, and of an adequate and relevant response.

Risk management, in this sense, must be a central component of all sectors of society.  Consequently, housing policy will cease to be focused solely on overcoming housing shortages.  It must also overcome segregation, ensure the construction of neighborhoods that have a safe geographical distribution, and provide good transportation, education, health, and emergency services.  In this sense, the multidimensional approach can help to reduce risks.

The Valparaíso Region, for example, has become an emblematic stage where the causes and effects of various socionatural disasters have been on display: water shortages, environmental contamination, forest fires, and city fires.  Examples like Valparaíso reveal the institutional, normative, and programmatic shortcomings of local and national authorities in terms of their capacity to handle them.  In this context, our qualitative study, Playing with risk, which was done in collaboration with the Research Center for Vulnerabilities and Disasters of the University of Chile, demonstrates how socionatural disasters have a profound effect on the lives of boys and girls that live in poverty and social exclusion.

Poor communities are always the most affected by catastrophes, as well as by the negative externalities linked to our development model.  The academic world, in this sense, must provide more evidence concerning this fact.  We are familiar with the different aspects of poverty or with the social inequality within given communities, and we are convinced that we live with high levels of vulnerability, but we have a long way to go in terms of developing the kind of evidence that will allow us to deepen our understanding of the experiences linked to certain disasters, which can profoundly scar the lives of whole generations of communities, and which can affect the well-being of our boys and girls.

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