Gold standard for measuring child poverty

UNICEF is among several key organizations to adopt the scientific estimates of child poverty developed at Bristol’s Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research.

More than one third of all children in developing countries - nearly 700 million - live in absolute poverty. That was just one of the stark conclusions from a ground-breaking 2003 study by a research team from the University of Bristol’s Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research.

What was remarkable about that study was that it was the first time that child poverty in the developing world had been estimated on a scientific basis. The team’s method, known around the world as the Bristol Approach, has since become a “gold standard” for measuring child poverty and deprivation, endorsed by UNICEF.

Basic human needs

The study was led by Professor David Gordon, Professorial Research Fellow in Social Justice at the School for Policy Studies. Dr. Shailen Nandy, Research Fellow at the Townsend Centre, says that the Bristol Approach is different because it relates directly to fundamental human needs – rather than an arbitrary economic definition.

The World Bank, for example, based its 2010 estimate that 400 million children suffered “extreme” poverty on the strictly economic but limited basis that they lived on less than $1.25 per day.

“The value of a dollar is different from one place to another,” Nandy explains. “Whereas over-crowding or not having an education means the same thing, wherever you are.”

The Bristol Approach

The Bristol Approach evaluates child poverty according to seven basic needs set out in the 1995 World Summit on Social Development's definition of Absolute Poverty: access to clean water, sanitation, shelter, education, information, food and health. Any household without access to one of these is defined as "deprived", and those deprived of two or more of these basic needs are defined as suffering from "absolute poverty".

In 2007, this research formed the basis of UNICEF’s Global Study on Child Poverty and Disparities - a collaboration involving both Nandy and Gordon. They analysed household surveys from more than 40 developing countries. Crucially, the Bristol Approach could be applied to all that survey data, providing a rigorous scientific measurement of child deprivation and absolute poverty.

International influence

The relationship between UNICEF and the Bristol researchers goes back a long way. In 1999, UNICEF approached Professor Peter Townsend (after whom the research Centre is named) to help measure child poverty around the world.

As a co-founder of the Child Poverty Action Group in 1965, Townsend is remembered as a leading light within social science and a hugely influential figure in poverty research. His research legacy has seen the Bristol Approach help put the rights of children at the heart of advocacy efforts by organisations like UNICEF and Save the Children, by delivering statistics on absolute poverty with the credibility and utility of scientific rigor.

The Bristol team’s work was also recognized by the UN Expert Group on Poverty Statistics (Rio Group) as an example of best practice. In its 2006 Compendium of Best Practices, the Rio Group wrote: “The [Bristol/UNICEF] study linked the concepts of child poverty, deprivation and children’s rights. It used a number of articles in the CRC [UN Convention on the Rights of the Child] to delineate how a fundamental right to freedom from deprivation and poverty might be infringed.”

Child Poverty more visible

That has made child poverty statistics distinct and credible. In the words of UNICEF, they are “no longer lumped together with general poverty assessments”, and that has helped establish a focus on the needs and rights of children around the world as a similarly distinct issue.

When Peter Townsend died in 2009, UNICEF acknowledged his research at Bristol had transformed the way it and many of its partners both understood and measured the poverty suffered by children. “[It] has exposed policymakers all over the world to a new understanding of child poverty and inequalities,” wrote the organisation. “As a consequence, children are more visible in poverty reduction policies and debates.”

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