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Participatory research: illuminating complexities of poverty

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Picture: AP Women make their way home after receiving bags of food from a World Food Programme distribution point near Magomba, Swaziland.

By Dr Faith Mkwananzi and Dr Mikateko Mathebula

One of the roles of higher education institutions is to research and address the diverse challenges that plague society. One such challenge is poverty.

For the past nine years, we have been working on projects focused on education and development with young people from low-income communities across Southern Africa. Researching diverse aspects of higher education has given us a fresh understanding of how universities are [often indirectly] active role players in understanding and acting on addressing poverty.

Most university research projects are increasingly becoming spaces in which ways to address everyday poverty issues are initiated. Informed by the multiple projects we have collaborated on (including with other partners) – most of which address a lack of resources in one way or another – we have come to understand poverty as multidimensional and complex.

For example, we have highlighted elsewhere the non-economic dimensions of poverty, among others deprivation of capabilities such as education, social inclusion, and power asymmetries; and why this dimension matters for addressing the ‘lack’ experienced by individuals. For the youth, invisibility in political, social, and economic spheres presents itself as a type of poverty.

In line with the theme of this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Dignity for All in Practice, spaces that engage with, reflect on, embrace, and acknowledge the youths’ diverse capabilities afford them the right to be valued and respected. Our participatory projects have been driven by recognising their cultural, social, political [and economic] potential, and by pulling together these capabilities, the youth can be key players in eradicating poverty.

Some inspiring projects

The ‘Changing the Story’ project (street art to promote representation and epistemic justice among marginalised rural Zimbabwean youth) applied the innovative and creative technique of graffiti on board with young people in rural Binga in Zimbabwe to create visual artefacts with the aim of stretching the boundaries of social and political spaces available to the youth for discussing issues that concern their development pathways. By creating a space where young people can visualise their prospective futures, one of the youths identified that he had all the prerequisites for accessing university and decided to apply for university entry. He is currently in his second year of study. Through a follow-on project, Youth agency, civic engagement, and sustainable development: Ideas for Southern Africa, youth in Mpumalanga have embarked on a moringa commercialisation initiative with the aim of both preserving cultural heritage and establishing a collective business.

The longitudinal Supporting Adolescent Girls’ Education (SAGE) project in Zimbabwe used a digital storytelling approach to highlight out-of-school young women’s aspirations. Over the three years of working with the young women, most of them have – through the process – reflected on what they value doing and have gone on to start small businesses.

In our ongoing project, Pursuing higher education in contexts of socio-spatial exclusion: a scoping study of the educational trajectories of youth from informal settlements, we worked with young people in Freedom Square to explore higher education challenges and opportunities for youth from low-income households.

Through a series of photovoice workshops, the young people reflected on experiences, present opportunities, and prospects for accessing higher education under non-ideal circumstances. In the process, some of the young people realised that they had the potential to apply to university, and consequently did so. Until we worked with them, they lacked the knowledge, motivation, courage, and agency to do so. As we write, there is potential that these young people will be at university in 2023.

Broadening our understanding of poverty

In the first instance, it is believable that young people are impoverished, but not after engaging with them on their lived experiences. Often, the type of ‘poverty’ experienced is perpetuated by multiple factors, including limited agency, lack of motivation, absence of emotional support, and limited spaces for the expression of self.

Such poverty, we believe, cannot be fixed by income or wealth, but by creating spaces for engagement, expression of self, and networking. Creative processes of reflection seem to have the ability to change one’s perspective about one’s circumstances and cause one to act on the change one desires to see in one’s life. In the process, young people discover their potential, what they truly value, and ways to carve their life trajectories.

Providing young people with spaces to reflect on, and for some to act on what is valuable to them transcends the mainstream view of poverty as merely a lack of wealth and income. Limited economic resources definitely contribute to ‘lack’ in one’s life but cannot be considered the absolute explanation of how we ought to understand poverty.

Money, income, and wealth are common limitations for most young people who desire to pursue higher education. But there are additional influences that constrain aspirations, access, experience, and throughput, which we may consider to be dimensions of poverty. For some youths, the much-needed resources are within their reach and constitute the social, cultural, and political dimensions of poverty. Political poverty must be understood to be the youths’ lack of opportunities for public engagement with relevant structures rather than active involvement in partisan politics.

The role of participatory research and creative engagement

The participatory approaches we employ in most projects have become key in broadening how we think about poverty. Most of the approaches are creative in nature and often equip the youth with the skills and knowledge necessary for them to act on their circumstances. Across projects, creativity has been developed through engaging and exploring individual artistic potential, which is often unexpressed due to the unavailability of opportunities that these projects provide.

The youth become motivated to act on personal projects that they consider important. Motivation to apply to university, to find a job, or to start a small business are examples of what the youth have been able to do for their personal development, but also as a way to fight against poverty. What has been a general challenge among most youths is the strength and courage to overcome fears, doubts, and sometimes past trauma.

These challenges create a self-perception of inadequacy and overshadow the potential they have. This suffices to claim that social relations are important and necessary to improve one’s status and perception of what one can and is effectively able to achieve.

Therefore, to address poverty, communities need more than money, and the research we conduct amplifies the importance of the other dimensions. Despite the limitations that come with this work, what remains important is continuous reflection on how we, as academics, can constantly engage with communities to challenge social, cultural, environmental, and political poverty in ways that advance everyone’s [often untapped] potential.


In the context of universities, there has been significant work on the impact of poverty on educational outcomes; the impact of higher education dropout on poverty; and the relationship between poverty and academic success rates at university. Although there is plenty of literature, both academic and non-academic, much of what is written hardly considers the way in which research projects engage with the experiences and understanding of poverty in the field. As researchers in the field of higher education and human development, we consider ourselves to advance the understanding and role of universities in promoting social justice and well-being, much of which involves operationalising the concept of poverty.

While it is important to acknowledge that poverty is, and should be primarily understood in economic terms, participatory research approaches illuminate its other dimensions.

Mkwananzi and Mathebula are senior researchers in the Higher Education and Human Development Research Programme at the University of the Free State.