4 Geo. J. on Fighting Poverty 273 (1996-1997)
Reflections on Defining, Understanding, and Measuring Poverty in Terms of Violations of Economic and Social Rights under International Law

handle is hein.journals/geojpovlp4 and id is 279 raw text is: REFLECTIONS ON DEFINING,
Alicia Ely Yamin*

hen it is not accompanied by a
/       igh of resignation at the end
of a discussion about the de-
cline of the work ethic, poverty is increas-
ingly treated by politicians, international
lending institutions, and academics alike
as arising out of issues of productivity
rather than from distributions in the
economic and social structure of society.
This article has three objectives. First,
starting with the premise that poverty
is a rubric for marginalization, hopeless-
ness, isolation, and disempowerment, I
argue that both poverty and inequality
are principally reflections not of prevail-
ing relations of production or of charac-
ter flaws in the poor, but rather of
structures and values that deny the dig-
nity and rights of human beings.1 Sec-
ond, I suggest that the social and eco-
nomic rights violations implicated by
poverty can best be understood in terms
of the mechanisms by which people are
denied the capabilities to secure their
own dignity and well-being rather than
in terms of pure resource levels.2 Third,
despite skepticism in the human rights

community about the utility of develop-
ment indicators, I argue that certain
types of poverty and development indica-
tors that measure what it is that we
actually care about from a human rights
perspective can play a critical role in
assessing whether economic and social
rights have been realized.'
Thus, Part I introduces the distinctions
between a rights-based discourse and two
alternative discourses of poverty and argues
that the former provides a better frame-
work for understanding why we care about
poverty. Part II presents some of the impli-
cations of shifting to a rights framework for
addressing poverty and introduces Amartya
Sen's capability theory, which measures
basic capabilities as opposed to income
levels derived from an invariate basket of
goods. I propose that Sen's capability
theory and its practical application in
the United Nations Development Pro-
gram's (UNDP's) Human Development
Index (HDI), are well-suited to fleshing
out the historically ill-defined methods
of evaluating poverty in terms of social
and economic rights deprivations.

Alicia Ely Yamin,
JD., M.PH., is an
Assistant Professor
of Clinical Public
Health and a Staff
Attorney in the Law
& Policy Project at
Columbia School of
Public Health. As a
founding member of
a grass-roots
human rights
organization in
Mexico, Ms. Yamin
was engaged in
extensive fact-
finding, advocacy,
and community
education. Much of
her current work,
which focuses on the
between health and
human rights,
continues to involve
Mexico and Latin



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