The Sustainable Development Goals: The Missing Dimension
In Geneva this April, The Relational Thinking Network hosted its first Round Table Dialogue , focusing on the “missing dimension” in Social Development Goals. You can download Dr. Michael Schluter’s paper below. A report will follow soon on the conference itself.

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Understanding Relational Poverty


Relational poverty can include three things: firstly, relational pain and the way it hinders people’s ability to develop healthy relationships; secondly, it means a lack of supportive relationships, leading to loneliness and a shortage of people to provide practical care and support; and thirdly it includes the knock-on social and economic needs that come as a result of relationship breakdown.


What is relational poverty? What does it feel like? It may be experienced as loneliness, a sense of irritation, or alienation from those around us. It may be the absence of anyone to go to in a moment of panic, or at a time of distress. It may be the despair, which is felt when there is no one to share days of depression, and no one to talk to after a child leaves home, or when a relative dies or you lose your job. It is how you feel if there is no one to help when you are ill and stuck at home. Or it may be experienced as a lack of a clear sense of identity, a lack of confidence in who you are and where you fit in the world.


The analogy of financial poverty helps us understand the concept of relational poverty. Financial poverty is to be without sufficient wealth or income to be able to meet basic material needs. It can also be defined in relative terms, to have significantly less wealth and income than your neighbours.

Relational poverty is also to be without something. That something is what we call ‘relational support’. It refers to the help we receive from relationships with other people in terms of love, commitment, empathy, encouragement, willingness and ability to listen to our problems and provide practical help.


Relational Support

Relational support enables someone to change, grow and develop as a person. It is not limited to close family and friends either – it extends into wider society. For example, it enables an ex-offender to settle back into the community, or a person with a disability to cope with the handicap and contribute to the life of their neighbours. Relational support enables people to cope with a wide range of other difficulties as well, such as debt, addictions to gambling or drink, and depression and mental illness. Relational support is important for old people, for it provides the necessary help to carry out certain physical activities such as to go shopping, to bathe, to remember to take medicine.


Relational poverty hits hardest those with the least relational support.

Who provides relational support? For most people, for much of their lives and especially when they are very young and very old, it comes from family members. Parents, grandparents and other relatives look after young children, and do so not just in terms of physical needs but also emotional and spiritual needs. In turn, children – and spouses – generally play a major role when a person becomes old and less independent. Both nuclear and extended family in most countries, and throughout most of history, have been the primary sources of people’s relational support.


This is not to devalue or underestimate other sources of relational support, most notably that of friends and neighbours, help offered by professionals such as doctors and teachers, and voluntary sector organisations who provide care and support.  However, relational support is not just a matter of providing a service; it also requires trust, commitment, empathy and a stable relationship.


There appears to be rapid growth of relational poverty in the world at the present time, although rigorous measurement is urgently needed. Especially in Western countries, the consequences of nuclear family breakdown, the scattering of extended families, population mobility (so that often people do not even know their immediate neighbours), large and impersonal urban environments, high-rise housing and individualistic forms of entertainment such as TV and iPods are all contributing to growth of relational poverty.


What are the causes of relational poverty? They are many. Some are associated with family breakdown… The child of a divorced couple may have difficulty accessing support from as many relatives as before. In the case of a single parent whose former spouse or partner refuses to be involved, there are only half as many relatives to draw on as before. When people move house for any reason, often relationships with neighbours and the local community are lost in the process. Geographic distance is often the greatest constraint on relatives who wish to provide relational support; there are only a limited number of ways you can help an old person if, for example, you live 200 kms away. Long and unsocial working hours make it more difficult for parents to provide relational support to children. Heavy workloads, and shortage of cash, make it more difficult for those in material poverty to alleviate the relational poverty of their relatives. Lack of funding and organisational capacity often constrain the relational support which can be offered from public services and NGOs.


Some policy issues to reduce relational poverty include relationship education to strengthen marriage and partnerships, co-location of relatives, work time, prevention of household debt, and promotion of intra-family financial flows.


Meanwhile in the wider culture, the need is urgent to re-evaluate what is most important in life, to challenge the assumptions of individualism and materialism, to recognise that relational poverty isn’t inevitable, and for all of us to choose to live more relationally at home, in our places of work, in our neighbourhoods and network communities – and build a more relational world.