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Absolute poverty has been seen as a matter of acute deprivation, hunger, premature death and suffering. This captures an important understanding of poverty and its relevance remains widespread in parts of the world today. It focuses attention on the urgent need for action. However, while there are some circumstances, such as starvation or unsafe water, which do lead to immediate death, most of these criteria require judgements and comparisons. What is classed as acute deprivation will vary from society to society and through time, and what is counted as premature death will depend on average life expectancies. So while there is a core to ideas of absolute poverty relating to the severity of deprivation and the need for immediate action, in practice, it is part of a continuum of a measurement of poverty, indicating it is deeper and worse.

As such, in 1995 the United Nations adopted two definitions of poverty.

Absolute poverty was defined as:

"a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services."

"Overall poverty takes various forms, including:lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also characterised by lack of participation in decision making and in civil, social and cultural life. It occurs in all countries: as mass poverty in many developing countries, pockets of poverty amid wealth in developed countries, loss of livelihoods as a result of economic recession, sudden poverty as a result of disaster or conflict, the poverty of low-wage workers, and the utter destitution of people who fall outside family support systems, social institutions and safety nets."

These are relative definitions of poverty, which see poverty in terms of minimum acceptable standards of living within the society in which a particular person lives. (UN, 1995) But 'overall poverty' goes further, recognising the many factors that can contribute to deprivation. In 2010, the United Nations, adopted a Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) covering health and education, as well as standards of living.