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Resilience offers escape from trapped thinking on poverty alleviation

Lade, S.J., L.J. Haider, G. Engström, and M. Schlüter (2017). Science Advances 3(5):e1603043.


The poverty trap concept strongly influences current research and policy on poverty alleviation. Financial or technological inputs intended to “push” the rural poor out of a poverty trap have had many successes but have also failed unexpectedly with serious ecological and social consequences that can reinforce poverty. Resilience thinking can help to (i) understand how these failures emerge from the complex relationships between humans and the ecosystems on which they depend and (ii) navigate diverse poverty alleviation strategies, such as transformative change, that may instead be required. First, we review commonly observed or assumed social-ecological relationships in rural development contexts, focusing on economic, biophysical, and cultural aspects of poverty. Second, we develop a classification of poverty alleviation strategies using insights from resilience research on social-ecological change. Last, we use these advances to develop stylized, multidimensional poverty trap models. The models show that (i) interventions that ignore nature and culture can reinforce poverty (particularly in agrobiodiverse landscapes), (ii) transformative change can instead open new pathways for poverty alleviation, and (iii) asset inputs may be effective in other contexts (for example, where resource degradation and poverty are tightly interlinked). Our model-based approach and insights offer a systematic way to review the consequences of the causal mechanisms that characterize poverty traps in different agricultural contexts and identify appropriate strategies for rural development challenges.

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