Poverty Traps

Social-ecological mechanisms of poverty traps

Poverty traps are defined as situations where feedbacks between social and ecological systems create undesirable, unsustainable, or maladaptive states that are highly resistant to change. They can often be observed both at the individual or community level and refer to processes rather than outcomes. In social-ecological literature, poverty traps are closely related to the notion of bistability, i.e. the existence of two attractors, where one attractor represents a poor state and the other represents a well-being state. Recent works based on dynamical systems modeling study intertwined ecological, social, behavioral and biophysical processes that create traps.

This project started by reviewing and synthesizing characteristics and mechanisms of persistent maladaptive situations (Haider, 2015) and proposing a more nuanced social-ecological conceptualization (Haider et al., 2017). A stylized mathematical model shows how nature and culture must be explicitly considered in addition to physical capital assets if poverty is to be eradicated without negative environmental and cultural impacts (Lade et al., 2017).

Recent research highlighted importance of self-reinforcing dynamics between persistent poverty and low soil quality (Radosavljevic et al., 2020). Bringing together the neoclassical economic theory, ecological theories of nutrient cycling and population growth and dynamical systems models, we analyzed how intertwined dynamics of assets, phosphorus, water and soil quality can create or break a vicious cycle of rural poverty. The models were used to test effects of poverty alleviation strategies under various biophysical and economic conditions.

The multidimensional nature of poverty and the multi-level organization of social-ecological systems create situations where traps on different levels can reinforce each other. This leads to emergence of multi-level traps that pose particular challenges for poverty alleviation. Using two-level dynamical system models we investigate the combined influences of biophysical and economic factors, farmers’ habits and community decisions on creating and alleviating persistent poverty (Radosavljevic et al., 2021).

Researchers: Sonja Radosavljevic, Udita Sanga, Maja Schlüter

Methods: Dynamical System Modeling, Evolutionary Game Theoretic Modeling, Agent Based Modeling, Participatory Games


Radosavljevic, S., Haider, L.J., Lade, S.J. and Schlüter, M., 2021. Implications of poverty traps across levels, World Development, Volume 144,105437, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2021.105437.

Radosavljevic, S., Haider, L.J., Lade, S.J. and Schlüter, M., 2020. Effective alleviation of rural poverty depends on the interplay between productivity, nutrients, water and soil quality. Ecological Economics, 169, p.106494. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106494

Lade, S.J., Haider, L.J., Engström, G., Schlüter, M. (2017). Resilience offers escape from trapped thinking on poverty alleviation. Science Advances 3, e1603043.

Haider, L.J., Boonstra, W.J., Peterson, G.D., Schlüter, M. (2017). Traps and Sustainable Development in Rural Areas: A Review. World Development. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2017.05.038

Haider, L.J. (2015). Understanding Poverty Traps in Biocultural Landscapes. Stockholm University: Licentiate Thesis.   http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A817782&dswid=2666

Swedish Research Council FORMAS grant no. 2021-01840.
European Research Council under the European Unions’ Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement no. 283950 SES-LINK and MuSES

Previously active researchers: Jamila Haider, Steven Lade, Garry Peterson, Wijnand Boonstra

Want to know more? Email sonja.radosavljevic-@-su.se