Floating houses and boats in Cambodia. Credit: Shutterstock.

The power of statistics to fight poverty

On the Day of the Eradication of Poverty, Dr Sabina Alkire, Director of the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative at the Oxford Department of International Development, reviews progress towards this goal.

Oxford University
Oct 16 · 8 min read

At the United Nations General Assembly this September, governments agreed to endorse a Political Declaration stating that poverty is the ‘greatest global challenge’. In 2015, the Member States of the United Nations set the objective of ‘ending poverty in all its forms everywhere’ as the first of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be met by 2030. However, five years on, it is clear that the world is not on track to meet its targets for poverty eradication.

What do we mean by poverty?

Originally, in both economics and policymaking, poverty was measured by income alone. Pioneering economists, such as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, identified that there were more ways of interpreting and measuring poverty, and that additional pieces of information — crucial insights relating to the experiences or values of a person — could be tracked. Poverty came to be perceived as multidimensional and not only about income. It was a huge step. By measuring and tracking more elements of people’s lives, governments could gather more evidence on what makes lives go better. Informed policies could be designed across multiple areas to allocate resources more effectively, and people struggling from hardships other than income poverty were less likely to be overlooked.

Universities can and should join the next generation’s minds to fight against poverty. It is fitting that the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences this year has recognised the key role of development economics and the impact of experiment-based approaches to create evidence-based decision making in poverty reduction programming. The recently launched 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report commissioned by the UN, and written by an independent group of 15 scientists, also states the importance of the participation of universities in the workings of the policy world.

At the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) in the University of Oxford, we have been working on methodologies inspired by Sen to measure multidimensional poverty for over a decade, and we assist governments and other stakeholders in using and developing these methodologies to track progress at the national and local level.

Through our global Multidimensional Poverty Index (global MPI), which we produce annually together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), we report each year headline figures of global multidimensional poverty, as well as granular findings into what that means for the rural and urban populations and different age groups studied in over 100 developing countries and 1,100 subnational regions. Across the 101 countries analysed this year, 1.3 billion people — 23.1% — are multidimensionally poor.

The MPI measures multidimensional poverty by starting with each person and looking at the deprivations they face. In the case of the global MPI, we consider deprivations in 10 indicators grouped in three dimensions — education, health and living standards. People are identified as MPI poor if they face a critical mass of deprivations at the same time — for example, for the global MPI, if they lack one-third of the ten indicators. Several countries around the world have developed their own national MPIs, adapting OPHI’s framework to their national contexts and policy priorities. For example, Nepal currently measures health, education and living standards, but Nigeria also includes work. The MPI makes visible all the deprivations each poor person experiences in any indicator. An MPI shows both who is poor and how they are poor, but the good news is that if any of these deprivations go down, the MPI goes down too. It is an intuitive tool, which when used over time, offers a steady hand to guide policymakers faced with countless competing priorities.

OPHI’s team of researchers is regularly deployed around the globe. Year round, researchers travel to the offices of statistical bureaus, the meeting rooms of ministers, and the working groups of students and committed stakeholders to ponder together what we have learned from trying to measure multidimensional poverty in the urban dwellings and rural communities of people who are being left behind.

Why do we go to New York?

OPHI also supports each year a Side Event at the United Nations General Assembly. The host countries are part of the Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network (MPPN), a South-South knowledge-exchange network, of which OPHI is the Secretariat. This year, the Side Event was hosted by the President of Costa Rica and included high-level representatives of several countries, which explained how they were using national MPIs to call for action.

International fora are important touchstones for governments who are otherwise working away on domestic challenges. At our event, speakers representing countries including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Chile, Costa Rica, Curaçao, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Seychelles, South Africa, several international agencies and a private sector group came together to share experiences with other policymakers. What arose from that discussion is instructive for academics, as well as for policymakers and statisticians. At these events, we learn what stage each country is at in their journey to reduce multidimensional poverty, and how the MPI has been used in their hands. We experience enthusiasm and learn what else is needed.

Research in practice

Seeing the research of one’s team applied far more creatively and competently than one could ever have imagined is a privilege. To share a few highlights, our host, the President of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado, who had been the Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion when Costa Rica introduced their MPI in 2015 observed ‘When you measure poverty only by income, it’s everybody’s fault and nobody’s fault. When you measure poverty through specific indicators, you have a ministry of housing, you have a ministry of science and technology, a ministry of health, a ministry of labour, a ministry of education, so those indicators are their indicators as well.’ For Costa Rica, the MPI had shown its worth as a coordination tool that increased the ownership of results across the multiple departments responsible for achieving improvements.

Chile’s Minister of Foreign Affairs wryly and frankly observed the importance of putting poverty reduction above politics when he commented that ‘If we don’t have medium and long term goals, social policies become electoral policies and electoral policies last until the day of the elections.’ Teodoro Ribera Neumann was referencing the Chilean MPI developed under one government, launched under another, and now being strongly advanced by the third.

Rosemarie Edillon from the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) of the Philippines shared how their trial MPI found that deprivations in education contributed most to poverty, and that in turn sent a ripple effect out into the education institutions leading to changes in budgeting.

Egypt’s Minister of Social Solidarity, Ghada Waly, reminded the audience of the voices of those for whom poverty is no theoretical situation. Speaking of the programme, ‘Dignified Life’, she told the audience how ‘we listen to the people in the villages, to groups in the villages, and we listen to their needs. It is very interesting how you can relate the elements and the indicators of the MPI to what people really think is important and is of relevance to them.’ In her view, it was this link to ground reality that makes the MPI ‘a true good governance tool, not just a measurement tool, not just a policy tool, but a good governance tool — because there is this element of partnership and this element of participation of the people.’

Children face the greatest burden of poverty today. According to the global MPI, half of the 1.3 billion people who are multidimensionally poor are children under age 18, a third are children under 10. Dr Shamsul Alam, Member (Senior Secretary) of the National Planning Commission of Bangladesh, who has recently completed a 100-year development plan for his country, explained the critical importance of prioritising child poverty in Bangladesh, which will launch its national MPI soon.

But what next?

Despite these examples of committed and strenuous creativity, there is nevertheless much work to be done and key calls to action to be made. First and foremost, insights from the rigorous, but still comparatively ‘new’ field of multidimensional poverty metrics need to be brought home to far wider audiences in the next generation — by animated data visualizations, an MPI app, computational resources, information in curricula and text books, integration into technical and executive training courses, and, most importantly, by illuminating, true and rigorous examples that awaken empathy and intelligence.

In parallel, this first generation of experiments of using MPIs for budgeting, targeting, coordination, monitoring, evaluation, and policy design need to be distilled, shared, appreciated and occasionally surpassed, with engagements from both policy and academia.

Turning to the SDGs, target 1.2 (the second out of 169 targets, so quite a visible and important one) which is by 2030 to ‘reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions’ is at risk of not being tracked because at present countries have never been able to report their baseline data. At the UNGA meeting, the President of Seychelles, reiterated a call from the summer meeting of the MPPN, to ask that the UN open a way for countries to report this data in the SDG indicator database. We hope this is about to happen next week at the meeting of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) in Addis Ababa. SDG indicator 1.2.2. will prove a useful resource to motivate and focus attention on poverty in all its forms.

The Seychelles also called for the inclusion of the global MPI as indicator 1.2.3 within the global indicator framework for SDG 1 to complement the $1.90/day measure with UNDP as the custodian agency. Several countries reiterated the usefulness of comparable global indices at the UNGA meeting. Without multidimensional poverty measurement at this global level, it is impossible to track global progress.

International cooperation with universities at the heart

International cooperation galvanises action and shares expertise. Without these, the global goal of poverty reduction cannot be achieved. Independent and supranational, universities can participate as collective experiences mature and research evolves. Hajiya Sadiya Umar Faruk, Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development in Nigeria, spoke for academics as well as policy actors when she said ‘Our destinies are linked; the goal is common; and time can’t wait. Let us join hands together to make this happen’.

Follow Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), University of Oxford:

Twitter: @ophi_oxford

Facebook: @ophi.oxford

Instagram: ophi_oxford


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Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: digicomms@admin.ox.ac.uk

Oxford University

Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: digicomms@admin.ox.ac.uk

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