Breaking the Link between ‘Polycrisis’ and Poverty
By Vidya Diwakar
This year marks the halfway point— eight years in and eight years out— of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty and reduce inequalities.
Yet we are a long way off from these commitments, and multiple crises – now known as ‘polycrisis’ – such as conflict, disaster and extreme poverty are converging on low income and lower-middle income countries, necessitating systemic change in our poverty eradication efforts.
The scale of the challenge before us is undeniable. Poverty has long been concentrated in certain low- and lower middle-income countries that continue to experience conflict and a high number of conflict related fatalities, and high numbers of people affected by disasters from earthquakes, to floods, fires or drought.
These are just two causes of impoverishment and chronic poverty, which often combine with other crises and shocks including ill health.
This isn’t just a concern, however, at the country level. The challenge we are increasingly facing because of polycrisis in many parts of the world is that inequalities within countries are also worsening. The complex and often multi-layered nature of today’s crises means that policymakers need to develop longer term solutions, instead of firefighting crises as they emerge.
Our work at the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network (CPAN) in Afghanistan saw that the pandemic, layered with the transition in power, drought, and heightened economic crises, all combined to drive poverty and a dramatic increase in hunger.
Its consequences were especially worrying for certain groups, not least women and girls, and with intergenerational consequences.
In Nigeria, research points to a confluence of hardships over the years experienced by the poorest populations due to sequenced, interdependent crises. The poorest households pre-pandemic were more likely to experience hunger and sell agricultural and non-agricultural assets to cope during COVID-19 in 2020.
As time went on they were also more likely to pay more than the official price for petrol in 2022 during rampant economic crisis, and to expect drought and delayed rains to negatively affect them financially into 2023.
Yet despite interconnected crises, most governments and international agencies respond to each disaster individually as it arises. This could limit the effectiveness of poverty eradication interventions or create additional sources of risk and vulnerability amidst polycrisis.
For example, the singular focus of many countries responding to COVID-19 often diverted resources from other interventions including peacebuilding operations, thereby allowing new conflict risks to arise.
Working ‘in’ and ‘on’ polycrisis: centring equity and risk
To reach the goal of poverty eradication and reducing extreme inequities, it is critical to respond in a way is sensitive to working in places experiencing polycrisis. This requires at a minimum upholding principles of ‘do no harm’ and being sensitive to local conditions and contexts.
At the same time, we need to find ways of proactively working on polycrisis, by responding to multiple crises simultaneously rather than one at a time. In other words, building on learning from conflict contexts, we need to be working in and on polycrisis in the road to zero poverty.
Many countries worked ‘in’ polycrisis when responding to climate-related disasters during COVID-19. For example, the Bangladesh government adapted its Cyclone Preparedness Plan through various actions including modifying dissemination of messaging through public announcements and digital modalities, and combining early warning messaging with COVID-19 prevention and protection messaging.
Afghanistan disaggregates needs by sector, severity, location, and population groups in its humanitarian needs overview, which when considered holistically can help ensure responses that prioritise benefiting people in poverty.
There are equally important lessons from working ‘on’ polycrisis. The World Food Programme’s operational plan in response to COVID-19 was regularly updated to consider evolving layered crises and support pre-emptive action, scale-up direct food assistance, and reinforce safety nets.
There are also examples we can draw on for reducing poverty from around localised decision making, relying on the knowledge that local communities, women’s rights organisations, and local disaster risk management agencies have about populations in the areas in which they operate.
Flexibility in funding is important in this process to be able to respond to rapidly changing contexts and needs.
Working ‘in’ and ‘on’ polycrisis together necessitates matrix thinking, rebooting and recasting what we know of complexity of intersectionality. While we previously recognised intersecting inequalities primarily by identity markers, such as gender, caste, and socio-economic status, we need to increasingly be aware of how inequalities of people and place converge over time, and how we might centre equity in risk-informed responses.
This requires a fundamental shift from single-issue technocratic approaches to crisis management. For example, though social protection – direct financial assistance for people – was heralded as a key mitigation measure during COVID-19 and in response to recent food and energy price inflation, most cash transfer programmes averaged just four to five months during the pandemic.
Social protection could be adjusted to increasingly target the vulnerable as well as people in poverty, and within those categories the people who have arguably been most disadvantaged by these crises. Recovery programmes by governments and international agencies also need to go on for longer than they typically do to build people’s resilience in times of uncertainty.
Disaster-risk management agencies within government could also consistently integrate conflict considerations in their activities. There are examples of anticipatory action such as early warning systems that draw on local, customary knowledge that could be built on in this process.
Investments in coordination between disaster risk, social protection, and peacebuilding agencies, as well as multilateralism between governments, civil society, and international organisations more broadly are needed to anticipate and adapt to systemic risk.
But this risk-informed development will only get us so far, if equity is not centred alongside risk management. Just as crises are increasingly layered and interdependent, we need to similarly integrate our responses to break the link between polycrisis and poverty.
Vidya Diwakar is Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and Deputy Director, Chronic Poverty Advisory Network
This post first appeared on IPS News.