How Families Cope with Poverty in Asia

Lessons from a review of Household Economy Analysis and Cost of the Diet Analysis in Asia, 2011-2015

By Vanessa Self, Senior Food Security & Livelihoods Advisor, Save the Children in Asia

Over the last five years Save the Children has been conducting analyses to inform a number of new programmes on the economic and food-related choices that households make across Asia. Last year we realised the untapped potential of this data beyond just the programmes they were intended to help design, and decided to take stock of what this information could tell us when put together, about poverty, vulnerability and hunger across the region. The data uncovered new information about how children experience poverty at the household level, which can inform not only programming but also national- and local-level decisions on how better to reach children and pull them out of poverty so they grow up healthy, educated, well-fed with nutritious food and in a safe and secure home.

First of all, let me explain a bit more about the two research tools we’d been using and what we found:

  1. The Household Economy Approach (HEA): a livelihoods-based framework for analysing the way households obtain access to the things they need to survive and prosper.
  2. The Cost of the Diet method: helps us understand the extent to which poverty affects the ability of individuals and households in different contexts to meet their energy, protein, fat and micronutrient requirements using locally available foods at different times of the year.

Between 2012 and 2015, we conducted nine HEA and six Cost of the Diet studies from 12 livelihood zones and five countries (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines).

We found out more about who the most poor and deprived are. Better-off households earn between three and nine times as much as the very poor households. This in itself is no surprise;  but the studies helped us understand the nature and drivers of this inequality: the poorest households have little in the way of income, assets and livelihood options; they have little to no access to land, or (fair) credit and savings mechanisms, and precarious livelihood strategies. The lack of land means the poorest households buy rather than produce their food so they often purchase food on credit;  which are often informal and with high interest rates. Women have fewer livelihood options due to social and cultural restrictions. . Across the livelihood zones, women tend to have limited skills, literacy and mobility compared to men. In the rural areas where women do engage in paid work, the work is limited to short periods throughout the year or they are paid less per day than men doing the same job. In urban areas, even those able to access formal employment do long hours without maternity benefits.

The poorest households are not just poor but vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks: their lack of savings and assets leaves them less able to cope with and bounce back from the region’s frequent climatic and economic shocks, which hit the poorest households hardest.



What’s new about these findings?

The review confirms what many of us know about poverty and hunger in the region. However, what the review does tell us that is not widely understood, is how these issues impact children:

In times of stress, poor households are likely to use coping strategies that can impact on children such as removing children from school, taking high-interest or unfavourable loans, which can have negative effects on children’s access to food, education, a safe environment, and items essential for their wellbeing. In some of the study sites, children in poorer households are more likely to be engaged in harmful child labour in order to contribute economically to the household’s income.

Even in ‘normal’ times, many poor households cannot afford nutritious food to prevent malnutrition, or to invest in their children’s education, health and other basic non-food needs: Very poor and poor households do not have sufficient income to purchase nutritious food, as well as essential non-food expenditures. On average, very poor households would need to increase their annual income by almost 1.5 times to be able to afford a nutritious diet in addition to other essential non-food expenditures, such as the cost of sending children to school, essential healthcare, fuel, clothes, etc.

In addition to poverty, cultural beliefs and practices, such as food preferences, sub- optimal breast-feeding practices also affect the nutritional status of children from all wealth groups. Sub-optimal breast-feeding practices are common throughout the region and increase the cost of a nutritious diet for children under the age of two as families must substitute breast milk for alternatives.

What needs to be done? Recommendations for programming

We need to design livelihoods and social protection programmes and polices based on a clear understanding of household economy.  In other words, we need to be specific about how much households’ income needs to increase to address these challenges for children.  Programmes should be designed to enable households to obtain sufficient and reliable income to meet specific needs, especially for children such as afford nutritious food and the cost of going to school etc.

We must design programmes to address non- economic barriers to children’s well-being, including cultural norms and practices: programmes should not assume that increasing household income or food production will alone automatically benefit children and must instead include complementary activities to address broader policy and cultural systems such as access to land, cultural norms around child feeding, and migration. Use social behaviour change communication approaches to help access to and consuming nutritious foods and appropriate child feeding and care.

Complementary environmental impact assessments will help identify sustainable livelihood options that enable households to prepare for and manage risk but also select livelihoods that do not cause long-term damage to the environment and natural resource base, like over-fishing.

Support women’s empowerment, to enable them to partake in culturally and religiously acceptable livelihood strategies to contribute to household income, while recognizing their workload in the home, including childcare.

Invest in a child-focused analysis of household income and needs: to design economic strengthening programmes in the way described above, practitioners and policy makers need robust and context specific household economy data. The HEA methodology should be modified to highlight the impact of poverty and shocks on childcare, as well as on child protection, education, learning and nutrition. Save the Children is well-placed to lead the charge on this!

The Cost of the Diet framework should be used more regularly alongside HEA to inform programming that will have sustainable impacts for children’s diets, such as identifying the lowest-cost nutritious foods that are locally available to reduce the cost of a nutritious diet throughout the year, and determining transfer values for cash- based food security or social protection programmes.

What happens now?

A first step needs to be a greater commitment from all of us responsible for delivering the SGDs on poverty and hunger to better understanding what poverty means for children; both what causes it and how it affects children’s lives.

Once we have achieved this, we then need to challenge our own assumptions that if we address the issues described above at household or community level, then we will automatically be improving the lives of children. In the same way that assuming economic growth will ‘trickle down’ at a national level, there is no guarantee that it will work at household level either. Poverty and hunger-reduction Programmes need to set and measure targets for children’s outcomes.

We can make our own context analyses more child sensitive by asking ourselves these questions: How much more money does a household need to earn to be able to afford a nutritious diet for children? What level of savings or assets does a household need during the lean season to avoid taking a child out of school? How much extra income would a household need to do without income from child labour and send a child to school instead?

These are the questions that poverty and hunger reduction programmes must ask, and then address. Save the Children is embarking on the development of a ground-breaking toolkit to enable us to do just this.

More Information:

Access the publication 'How Families Cope with Poverty in Asia: lessons from a multi-country review of Household Economy Analysis and Cost of the Diet Assessments, 2011-15'

Read the Executive Summary

Got a question? Contact Vanessa Self  or Kate Kenny