Published on Voices

Giving voice to the poor: Adding a human touch to poverty data in South Sudan

We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human. –Hannah Arendt

We all know that measuring poverty is critical to monitor progress and to tailor effective policy response . But what the numbers mask is the pain and suffering that people go through to make ends meet. Let’s take the case of South Sudan. The country has had a very tumultuous time, witnessing more than its share of a few crises between 2015 and 2016. The collapse of a fragile peace accord led to a renewed military confrontation while simultaneously international oil prices dropped, depriving South Sudan of its main source of foreign exchange. This triggered a severe fiscal and economic crisis, leading to sky rocketing prices as documented in our real time market price dashboard. Securing livelihoods has become more and more difficult with 66 percent of the population now living in poverty, a new peak.

The 66 percent number certainly summarizes the country’s poverty level, which is unquestionably useful for comparisons and analyses to inform policies and programs. However, what the number doesn’t reveal is the struggle that families go through daily. To capture this aspect and give a humane feel to an abstract poverty number, we have started collecting short video testimonials from people living in South Sudan as part of the High Frequency Survey:


The testimonials capture the dire situation on the ground, revealing what it is like to live in poverty. While the data may help the government fine tune its policies, the videos depict the sense of powerlessness, the pain of hunger, the stress of hopelessness and the feelings of disappointment that express people’s experiences. Respondents in the testimonials explain the struggle of watching their children starve, not being able to provide for them nor sending them to school, and knowing that tomorrow is not a better day. One can discern a feeling of helplessness in these video testimonials.

The opportunity to voice their struggle is a first step to empowerment, allowing them to tell the world of what their life is like. It is also an inspiration for us to continue finding innovative ways for helping them and millions like them to escape poverty. While we cannot substitute quantitative analysis to design programs and policies with testimonials, such video testimonials prove to be an effective tool to focus our analyses while voicing the concerns of the poorest. For poverty is not just a number; it is a human struggle .

Our inaugural flagship – Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016: Taking on Inequality – raised concerns about addressing prevalent data gaps in measuring poverty. Therefore, World Bank has pledged to ensure that the 78 poorest nations have household-level surveys every three years . So far, 41 out of the 48 Sub-Saharan African countries have surveys ongoing or planned in the next two years . Why do we not use this opportunity to give more voice to the poor? Our experience in South Sudan shows that recording testimonials is an extremely low-cost intervention in conjunction with a household survey. Giving voice to the poor brings us a step closer in achieving our goals of ending extreme poverty  and boosting shared prosperity by 2030.

The South Sudan High Frequency Survey is designed by World Bank, implemented together with South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics and funded by DfID.


Utz Pape

Lead Economist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice

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