Participatory Poverty Assessments

Governments and their development partners formulate and implement a range of poverty reduction policies, frameworks and strategies. The rationale for Participatory Poverty Assessments (PPAs) is that for these policies to work, the voices of poor and marginalised people and their understandings of poverty need to be included. Failure to respect and respond to how poor people experience poverty and what they see as causing it can contribute to poverty reduction interventions missing their targets.

PPAs became popular in the 1990s. Over time, three cases for their use became apparent:

  • Poor people have the right to participate in the design of policies targeting them.
  • PPAs generated new insights about poverty.
  • PPA processes opened spaces for poor people to influence policy.

In many cases, the process of carrying out a PPA built new relationships between government, aid actors, civil society organisations (CSOs) and ordinary people. PPAs are not only used to design appropriate policies, but can also help in implementing and monitoring them, providing a baseline for follow-up studies.

Understanding poverty

The early PPAs demonstrated that they could provide new and different information about poverty, in particular supporting understandings of poverty as a multi-dimensional phenomenon and the importance of taking a holistic approach to people’s well-being. In particular, they:

  • demonstrated that poverty is experienced differently by different kinds of people, whether men or women, younger or older, or from different ethnic groups.
  • highlighted important non-economic aspects of poverty like vulnerability, social exclusion, time poverty, seasonality and problems in access to services.


PPAs became popular in the 1990s. A summary of their evolution and the methods they utilised, A Rough Guide to PPAs: An introduction to theory and practice, was published in 2001 by Andy Norton of the UK Overseas Development Institute and his colleagues.

The emergence of PPAs was closely related to the poverty reduction agenda of the World Bank. At this time, governments who wanted to continue borrowing from the World Bank were required to carry out poverty assessments and define a national poverty line, both based on national household survey data.

The very first PPAs were small-scale research exercises designed to complement the survey data used to produce poverty assessments. They comprised short field visits by researchers who used participatory methods to engage with poorer people. This led to criticisms from many development actors, including social development experts within the Word Bank itself, about top-down understandings of poverty. Building on these critiques, PPAs gradually developed into larger-scale research exercises which aimed to capture people’s own analysis of poverty more comprehensively, and channel their voices to the policy table.

First generation PPAs demonstrated the potential of the approach to produce different information about poverty and new insights about its nature and dynamics. The emphasis in this round of PPAs was on better information for better policies.

The second generation of PPAs built on this information focus, but also showed how PPA processes could create new relationships between actors involved in poverty reduction. The inclusion of a broad range of actors in implementing PPAs created opportunities for collaboration or division of labour in the implementation of poverty reduction strategies, and in the monitoring of progress. Second generation PPAs emphasised the importance of policy influence by CSOs and poor people, and amplified calls for more national control of poverty reduction strategies.

Evaluating PPAs

PPAs involve many different actors, some more powerful than others. They have been criticised by some as being a tokenistic use of participatory methods by powerful international institutions which have not resulted in any real change in policy formulation or implementation. But they have also provided many non-governmental actors with unprecedented access to policy processes, and a chance to work with government in a positive and productive way.

Several questions can be asked about any PPA process which contribute to a critical understanding of its value:

  • How inclusive was the process of the PPA? Who decided which CSOs would be involved, and under what conditions?
  • How were local communities selected to participate, and who represented them in the PPA fieldwork?
  • What was the level of their participation of community members? Did they simply get to state their opinions, or did they get involved in decisions about the process and follow-up of a PPA?
  • Were the process and outcomes of the PPA perceived as legitimate by all the stakeholders?
  • How are decisions made about poverty reduction policies, and are there any accountability mechanisms in place to evaluate whether the PPA has influenced these decisions?
  • Did the PPA process open any space for citizens to monitor the government’s progress in fighting poverty?