To End Poverty We Need to Understand it Better

05/12/2013 10:46 | Updated 02 February 2014

Sabina Alkire is Director at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), University of Oxford

Poverty is more than a lack of income. A million voices have already said it. So a post-2015 agenda in which the headline indicator is $1.25/day is likely to draw criticism. At the same time, crowding the anti-poverty agenda with competing indicators increases complexity and brakes momentum. Instead, setting development goals requires an integrated multidimensional poverty measure to draw attention to the real deprivations poor people describe - and live.

Multidimensional poverty, as participatory work of late has shown, includes poor health, lack of education, inadequate living standards, environmental degradation, lack of income, gender discrimination, poor quality of work and violence. Ending $1.25/day poverty is unlikely to mean the end of these many overlapping disadvantages.

In recognition of this, in September 2013, over 25 countries and institutions in the Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network (MPPN) proposed the consideration of a new headline indicator of multidimensional poverty for the post-2015 context - the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2015+.

The MPI2015+ would start with each person and look at the deprivations he or she is experiencing at the same time. It would be deeply rooted in a rights-based approach which values each person equally. The measure would show how people are poor (which disadvantages they experience at the same time); to which regions or ethnic groups they belong; and the inequalities among those living in poverty. Because it can show who is poorest among the poor, it would help to ensure that no one is left behind after 2015.

By revealing which deprivations a poor person is experiencing simultaneously, an MPI2015+ helps break apart the silos of poverty reduction interventions and inform more cost-effective, joined-up and better targeted policies. A key message in What will it take to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? - a UNDP study based on 50 country studies - was the need to address interconnected deprivations synergistically. This message is powerfully echoed in the forthcoming OECD Report Ending Poverty. The MPI2015+ allows deprivations and targets to be addressed together because it shows how they are interconnected.

The new measure would be constructed using the Alkire Foster (AF) method of multidimensional measurement, developed at the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) by myself and Professor James Foster. A flexible, open-source technology, the AF method measures different 'dimensions' of poverty, according to the context.

Measures built with this method are already being used by the Government of Colombia to coordinate poverty reduction policies across ministries, and the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, for integrated multi-sectoral interventions. The governments of Mexico and Bhutan use official multidimensional poverty statistics to track change and guide policies. International measures include the global MPI, an index of acute multidimensional poverty for over 100 developing countries, which is published in UNDP's flagship Human Development Report.

The MPI2015+ would reflect both participatory and expert inputs, and could readily incorporate a range of social, economic and environmental dimensions. It could be used to define and monitor inclusive growth, incorporating economic indicators such as work or wealth alongside social aspects of poverty such as access to health, education and gender discrimination. In addition, a post-2015 multidimensional poverty index could incorporate or inform sustainability indicators like air and water pollution, extreme weather events (such as floods and draughts), and other environmental hazards that strike in the same time and place as poverty.

To support the development of the MPI2015+ we are also calling for a data revolution to provide more and better data on the multiple aspects of poverty. A critical tool will be a post-2015 survey which generates comparable core indicators, and can reflect national priorities.

The MPI2015+ will be media-friendly, because it shows the percentage of poor people (incidence) and the intensity of poverty they experience in a way that is easy to understand. To end poverty as the poorest see it, we need to use a measure that illuminates the set of serious deprivations that blight poor people's lives - alongside a measure of income poverty. Only then can we tackle poverty effectively, and track our progress as we work to end it.

Sabina Alkire will be speaking at "Can we really end poverty? A debate on the future of development", hosted by the OECD and Intelligence Squared. Click here to watch the livestream on Thursday 5th December from 7pm-8.30pm UK time.