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Multiple shocks and downward mobility:learning from life histories of rural Ugandans

Kate Bird
Isaac Shinyekwa


This paper presents findings from research in rural Uganda based on household survey and village level participatory work with in-depth life history interviews. This allowed the exploration of trajectories into and out of poverty and found that the loss of assets and composite shocks have propelled a number of previously non-poor households into severe and long-term poverty. In addition, findings illustrated that those born into chronically poor households found few opportunities for accumulation and escape. Well-being decline was associated with a web of meso-level constraints and shocks which commonly combined negatively with household level shocks and socio-cultural or socio-psychological factors. Chronically poor households seldom faced only a single problem or constraint, and those who reduced the intensity of their poverty generally managed to do so as a result of several serendipitous events or factors combining. Shocks with a long-run impact include the fragmentation of families, following marital breakdown or the death of a parent. The repercussions of this were particularly strong for women and their children who could be affected long into adulthood. Ill health, physical weakness and disability were strongly associated with declines in well-being. 'Non-cooperation within the household', resulting in the theft and sale of stored crops or household assets, was associated with high (male) alcohol consumption, high levels of domestic violence and reduced levels of well-being for the whole household. Inter-ethnic conflict resulting in internal displacement, the loss of productive and household assets and the death of household members caused life-long trauma and declines into chronic poverty for many households. The complete absence of effective interventions for 'vulnerable groups' has left widows, orphans, the abandoned elderly, the disabled and the long-term sick with no where to turn. Difficulties in accessing markets, particularly in remote rural areas, means that the chronically poor, even the 'non-vulnerable', can rarely accumulate assets through selling their labour. With no surplus to save, low levels of human, social or political capital and few productive assets, the chronically poor's ability to identify and capitalise on escape routes from poverty are profoundly limited. Day to day levels of well-being are extremely low and they have little hope for a brighter future. Targeted social protection measures are clearly necessary to provide long-term welfare to some and opportunities to invest and accumulate for others.

Publication Type(s)

CPRC Working Paper


poverty dynamics assets agriculture rural Uganda life history shocks

ISBN: 1-904049-35-4


Multiple shocks and downward mobility PDF 426.8 KB

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