People have been thinking about poverty for millennia. The diverse and distinct global history of poverty thinking includes Confucianist, Pan-African and other perspectives. Arguably, Western perspectives on poverty have had the biggest impacts on human development in recent human history.

In this working paper, the authors focus primarily on the journey over the past two centuries of Western thinking on poverty, which has had such a significant role in shaping ideas around poverty within the “international development” discourse of the past 50 years (Paris, 2009; Walker, 2014). From within this convention, they write that we can see that concerns about poverty are closely interwoven with development thinking, and that many of the conceptual roots of contemporary poverty thinking can be traced to Western European concerns with social problems (Hulme, 2012), based in turn on thinking from at least the late Roman Republic over 2000 years ago (Atkins & Osborne, 2006) to the Enlightenment.

In the past 200 years, the literature and thinking on poverty have seen a tremendous transition, from moralistic arguments about the necessary function that poverty performs within society towards a more modern literature that emphasises the multidimensional nature of poverty.

Extract from “Maps Descriptive of London Poverty” from “Inquiry into Life and Labour in London” by Charles Booth, 1889 (copyright free)

Graphic: Charles Booth / extract from “Maps Descriptive of London Poverty” from Inquiry into Life and Labour in London, 1889 (copyright free).