Psychologists Argue for Decolonial Approach to Global Poverty

Individualist psychological models of poverty pathologize poor communities, decolonial approaches that emphasize context and interdependence may be more sustainable


A new article, published in Translational Issues in Psychological Science, discusses issues with a Western psychological model for understanding and addressing global poverty. The article is written by doctoral student Sara Estrada-Villalta and her advisor, Glenn Adams, an associate professor at the University of Kansas.  The authors critique individualistic psychological models that ignore the context within which poverty developed. They offer a decolonizing alternative that emphasizes relational psychological models and promotes care toward others and the shared environment.

“Decolonial perspectives, rooted in the knowledge and experiences of people living in less affluent contexts across the world, emphasize the need to go beyond individual psychology to consider the interconnected histories of world regions that originate and sustain poverty and inequality,” the authors write.

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The United Nations estimates 836 million people live in extreme poverty. Since World War II, there has been an increasing focus on global poverty. Income inequality is often conceptualized in a Western framework of individualism, in which a person is “an autonomous entity acting intentionally on the world with a sense of freedom from contextual constraints,” write the authors.

Research has shown that individuals from more affluent countries tend to attribute success to personal agency (e.g., hard work, talent) whereas people from less affluent nations view success in relation to ecological factors (e.g., educational and economic opportunities). The authors note that access to more resources “allow[s] people to experience a sense of liberation from ecological constraints.”

In 1985, Lawrence Harrison, the former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development for many Latin American countries, described economic underdevelopment as “a state of mind.” Through this lens, affluent Western societies are seen as “the neutral or natural standard,” and poor societies are viewed as “pathological deviations.”

Thus, interventions are aimed at correcting “poor countries’” “underdevelopment.” For example, researchers have studied what psychological factors are associated with modernization and economic advancement and then recommend developing institutions that promote these individualistic psychological traits in poor counties. The authors note, “This theoretical elaboration provided justification for interventions designed to influence local cultures to become more similar to patterns valued in the U.S.”

However, an individualistic perspective ignores context (e.g., how colonialism has caused global income inequality) and prizes interventions that focus on personal fulfillment and competition, rather than interdependence and sustainability. These interventions can lead to reduced sharing of scarce resources and a breakdown in community support networks. Thus, the authors write, “Rather than alleviating poverty, such interventions can reproduce the conditions of insecurity they aimed to eradicate.”

The authors also discuss coloniality of knowledge, “which refers to the valorization of the knowledge and ways of producing knowledge that are prevalent in the most affluent and powerful settings in the Global North.”  A consequence can be epistemicide, which the authors define as “the extermination of the local and particular knowledge or ways of knowing.”

Alternatively, the authors call for a decolonizing approach to global poverty that “challenge[s] the global imposition of individualist models”:

“Decolonial perspectives emphasize not only the violent historical origins of individualistic psychological models, but also how their elevation to the status of universal standards constitutes a reproduction of such violence.”

Taking a decolonial approach, the authors recommend, “interventions aimed at poverty eradication should draw on local knowledge and practices, particularly on psychological models that emphasize the fundamental interdependence between humans and their ecologies.”

Postdevelopmental discourses, articulated by Arturo Escobar and other Latin American scholars, emphasize interconnectedness and obligations toward others. For example, economía social y solidaria (social and solidarity economy) emphasizes redistribution of resources, cooperation, and addressing communal—rather than individual—needs. The authors also emphasize empowerment that is not only individualized but involves family and community members in decision-making.

Poverty and economic stress have been shown to negatively impact mental health and cognitive function. However, when reviewing this research, it is important not to impose Western conceptualizations of wellness onto other communities. The authors call for a de-fusing of individualist psychological models and conceptions of economic development that pathologize poverty. Acknowledging the harms of colonialism and drawing from knowledge in local communities, the authors recommend sustainable approaches to resource sharing and community building as a way to address global income inequality.




Estrada-Villalta, S., & Adams, G. (2018). Decolonizing development: A decolonial approach to the psychology of economic inequality. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 4(2), 198-209. (Link)