What is poverty and how should we respond?

A misdiagnosis can lead to serious problems. For example, if we visit the doctor with a headache and he or she gives us some painkillers but doesn’t investigate the cause of the headache we may miss something much more serious.

Celebrating the success of women’s groups in South Sudan Photo: Tom Price/Tearfund

Understanding poverty

How we understand poverty will determine our response to it. Many people understand poverty as economic poverty. For example, the World Bank defines people in poverty as those living on less than 1.90 USD a day. Other measures of poverty such as the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) and The Happiness Index look beyond economic poverty, recognising that poverty is more complex and also relates to health, education and access to resources.Tearfund’s understanding of poverty goes much further than even these definitions or metrics. 

Tearfund understands poverty as coming from broken relationships. The Bible tells a story that starts with a life of wholeness in creation (Genesis 1 and 2) that was broken by the Fall (Genesis 3). The result was broken relationships – ultimately with God, but also with each other, with ourselves and with the whole of creation.

Watch a short video in which Bishop Jwan Zhumbes from Nigeria talks about Jubilee and God’s promise of provision for all.

Responding to poverty

Once we understand what poverty is, the next step is to decide how best to respond. We must ask what are the steps and activities that will help end extreme poverty, and how do we, individually and as an organisation, play our part?

To answer this question, we need to have a vision of what a world without poverty would look like. This gives us an end goal for our relief and development work and it helps us to know what we want to see as a result. It also means asking deep questions about what it means to be human, how we are supposed to live in the world and what it means to flourish.

High levels of poverty have been exacerbated by numerous conflicts and climate-related disasters over the past 50 years. Photo: Peter Caton/Tearfund

‘Tearfund’s approach to overcoming poverty goes beyond meeting basic needs to enabling and empowering people to flourish.’

Overcoming poverty

Tearfund’s approach to overcoming poverty is holistic: we believe God’s mission is to restore all four different types of broken relationships, and we want to be a part of this. This approach goes beyond meeting basic needs to enabling and empowering people to flourish. This approach also goes beyond Tearfund – we believe that all Christians are called to be part of restoring broken relationships while we wait for that work to be completed when Christ returns. 

Our new publication Understanding Poverty presents Tearfund’s thinking about what poverty is and how we can best respond. It draws on years of experience and reflection and on conversations about these very questions with many different people. These include: those we are working with and serving in some of the world’s poorest communities, development experts, church leaders and theologians, politicians, academics and business leaders. It describes our understanding of the nature and causes of poverty, and our vision for a future in which the whole of creation thrives. 

As you read it, consider what’s your part to play in this restoration story? 

Read our new booklet Understanding Poverty, Restoring Broken Relationships

Download a PDF version

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Anna Ling
Anna Ling is Programme Effectiveness Advisor at Tearfund. Email: anna.ling@tearfund.org