Interview with Emma Samman, Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute

Poverty and Inequality

In our final interview for the ‘Approaches to Equity’ Phase 2 series, Emma Samman discusses inequalities which she believes should include not only income but other dimensions of well being. She goes on to explain why inequalities between social groups and overlapping deprivations exist. She elaborates on how people’s perceptions of inequality affect their response to prevailing inequalities.

Interview conducted in March 2014

Q.What do you think about current concepts of equity and equality? What is your perspective on these existing concepts? Which concept/theory do you use?

A: Conceptually, my work focuses on the capability approach, which is concerned with the substantive freedoms that people enjoy, and the multidimensional perspective this affords. This approach insists on the importance of looking at the distribution of inequalities not simply in income, as is often done, but across a range of dimensions of wellbeing – and also the extent to which they relate to one another.

In addition, inequality between social groups, as delineated by age, gender, disability status and other characteristics, as well as by the overlap between them matters a great deal – such inequalities are often associated with capability deprivations.

As for the equity and equality distinction, which tends to hinge on the extent to which people’s choices affect outcomes, when taking a multidimensional and group-based perspective, this tends to matter less, particularly where children are concerned and where the focus is on so-called basic capabilities. For example, few would argue that inequalities in basic health and education outcomes are equitable as they can be supposed to result from constraints rather than choice.

Taking a group-based focus also tends to blur the distinction between inequality and equity – it is unlikely that systematic differences between groups are the result of different preferences rather than inequitable structures.

Q. In your view, what are the main causes of increasing inequities at the local, regional and global level?

A: I think it’s very important here to distinguish structural drivers that are linked with inequalities and policy responses – the older suggestion of a structural relationship between levels of development and inequality – as embodied in Kuznet’s curve, for example – has been supplanted by evidence suggesting that rather, policy is what matters. Recent work by Ravi Kanbur makes this argument well.

At a local level, inequalities are often linked to group-based characteristics and associated historical patterns of discrimination, and to patterns of migration and urbanization. Social policy responses such as those relating to service provision and to addressing discrimination matter too. Specific macroeconomic policies as well as global changes associated with liberalization and globalization are also relevant, but again these are often mediated by country specific circumstances – both policy and political structures.

An important link is with people’s perceptions – which affect how people respond to prevailing inequalities – analysing these perceptions offers the potential to understand better why people accept various types of inequalities, even when they are negatively affected by them, and under what circumstances they may be more likely to insist on change.

Q. What are the three key results or recommendations of your research on equity which policymakers and practitioners should know of? On what evidence do you base those?

A: First, I would point out that there is often a lack of correlation between people’s experiences across different dimensions of wellbeing – this holds true when looking at how country level indicators relate to one another and additionally when looking at how different aspects of inequality may or may not overlap. This means it is important to look at how inequalities are experienced in different dimensions and how these relate to one another.

Second, even when overall circumstances are improving this is not always reflected in the experiences of particular groups and/or areas. So a disaggregated focus is also important to get a full picture of inequality.

Finally, I would stress the need for better data on how different dimensions of wellbeing are experienced by different groups – in other words, for disaggregated data. For example, my colleague Laura Rodriguez and I have looked at gaps in terms of the internationally comparable data on disability, old age and mental health issues – which carries implications for the possibility of monitoring a post-2015 framework that seeks to address disparities associated with these issues.

Q. Do you have evidence in your area of research of ‘innovative best practices’ in terms of policies and programs that have achieved more equity for children?

A: My current work has focused less on policies and programs and more on the types of measurement and analysis that can enable a higher resolution focus on the circumstances of disadvantaged and/or marginalized groups.

First, I would say a focus on multiple dimensions of wellbeing and the extent to which they are related, as well as the group-based components of inequality, which are often substantial.

In terms of inequalities, a recent advance is work that focuses not only on inequalities that are experienced by groups but how they intersect with one another, what Naila Kabeer has termed ‘intersecting inequalities’ – for example, the recent World Inequality Database on Education dataset which looks at how education poverty is experienced by different groups within countries, but also by combinations of these groups – for instance, rural girls versus urban boys. This highlights the often salient gaps that exist among social groups within countries.

Given that data are often limited, it is important to be clear about these limitations and about what would be useful to analyse a given problem. This can be an entry point for advocating for better data that permit more nuanced and comprehensive analysis of inequalities.

Finally, I would point to the potential offered by new forms of data collection that could complement the data drawn from traditional household surveys and draw into stronger relief the situation of particular groups or areas – for example, the potential offered by mobile phone-based collection and other forms of Big Data. My forthcoming work at ODI will aim to investigate this potential, its opportunities and its limitations.

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[1] https://www.aeaweb.org/aer/top20/45.1.1-28.pdf

[2] http://kanbur.dyson.cornell.edu/papers/DoesKuznetsStillMatter.pdf

[3] http://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8415.pdf

[4] http://www.unicef.org/honduras/declaracion_del_milenio.pdf

[5] http://www.education-inequalities.org/


Emma Samman is a Research Fellow in the Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme at ODI. She has experience in analysis of multidimensional poverty and inequality, the human development approach, survey design and the use of subjective indicators to inform development policy. She has also worked on the socio-economic effects of market development, and the effects of space and segregation upon wellbeing. Prior to joining ODI, Emma worked for the Human Development Report Office (UNDP), Institute of Development Studies (IDS, University of Sussex) and Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI).

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