Tom Adams

Measure for Measure: Is the phrase ‘Base of the Pyramid’ off base?

Editor’s note: Today we’re launching a new series of posts, Measure for Measure, which focuses on trends, tools and viewpoints in impact measurement. Check out The Big Idea page on NextBillion for future posts in the series.

The expression “bottom of the pyramid” was first used by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt in his 1932 address, The Forgotten Man. “These unhappy times” he decried “call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power…that build from the bottom up and not from the top down that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

Today, and with less implied applause, the phrase is ubiquitous amongst development, charitable and social enterprise circles to describe those living in relative or absolute poverty according to their income. In innumerable papers, articles and blogs the term is used to describe the target population of our collective interventions. At nearly every conference I attend I come away with the acronym “BoP” ringing in my ears. And to be honest it sticks.

The question on my mind is why is it so popular? Income measures and approaches represent a pretty narrow sense of poverty. Isn’t it time to update our thinking about what makes a person “poor” and, in doing so, update our lingo?

So why is income, which at first blush might appear a clear, objective way to assess poverty, insufficient?

For starters, income alone misses a great deal of what it means to be poor. In his seminal book, Development as Freedom, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen brought attention to the phenomenon that despite higher per capita incomes, African American men were decisively outlived by men from Kerala, India (once both populations had made it out of childhood). Sen questioned not just the relative poverty of African Americans – within the USA versus their white counterparts – but also their absolute poverty when judged by such a vital aspect of well-being as life expectancy.

Moreover, as the excellent Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) point out, poor people themselves describe their experience of poverty by more than just income. The poor are likely to highlight poverty as meager health, under-nutrition, lack of adequate sanitation and clean water, social exclusion, low education, bad housing, as well as intangible notions such as shame and lack of dignity.

So why are we so wedded to “BoP”?

Part of the reason might be that it has become interchangeable with the word poverty and people using it tend not to consider it an income-only definition. But there remains a nagging feeling that many remain skeptical about wider definitions of poverty, happier to stick with what is familiar and seemingly simple.

Perhaps a kinder explanation is that income is seen as a “least bad” proxy for other dimensions of poverty. There is some sense to this, but as Sen’s example shows it does not hold in all cases, and we can do better. Alternatively, non-income measures are described as operationally infeasible, too complex for their own good or constructed arbitrarily.

It is true they are more complex, and I also hold little stock for happiness measures of well-being, which are generally too prone to adaptive expectations. But in advances like OHPI’s multi-dimensional poverty index and the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Equality Measurement Framework, we are arming ourselves with new and powerful tools to think about poverty and/or inequality by more than income alone. Both are constructed with the practitioner in mind, and as holistic assessments of what it is to be poor offer considerably more than just income. Intriguingly, the MPI does not even use a direct measure of income as part of its index.

What’s more, income assessments themselves are no picnic to collect. Simply asking about income is notoriously unreliable, and, with the exception of recent rapid poverty assessment tools, have historically required lengthy and costly surveying in order to extract reliable data.

So isn’t it time we dropped the BoP tag and modernize our language? Doing so might also encourage us to modernize our assessments of poverty, moving toward multidimensional analysis which tells us more about the many and varied ways in which someone can suffer from poverty. And what is the fallout to enhancing our language, definition and measurement of poverty? Who knows, we might just start to target more suitable interventions and solutions as a consequence.

Tom Adams is the head of Impact at Acumen.

Education, Impact Assessment
Base of the Pyramid