It was very exciting to witness the shift in the understanding of poverty of many governments, who have adopted a more multidimensional measurement of poverty. The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), led by Sabina Akire, can claim the great achievement of having pushed over 20 countries to either adopt or experiment with new ways of measuring poverty. The OPHI played a key role in changing the conceptualisation of poverty amongst policymakers.
Inaugurated in the 2010 Human Development Report, the MPI has contributed to opening the debate on the necessity of developing indicators that could better capture different deprivations. The MPI measures three dimensions of poverty – health, education and living standards – through 10 indicators. It is calculated by multiplying the number of people identified as multidimensional poor by the average percentage of deprivations that poor people experience. In this way, it takes into account both the proportion of poor people and the intensity of their poverty.
During a side-event at the last UN General Assembly on post-2015, a new global MPI 2.0 was proposed as the headline indicator for the new development framework. Ministers from important countries clearly acknowledged the limitations and insufficiency of income approaches and recognised the importance of having multiple indicators to capture different dimensions of poverty. It was a belated but very welcome step forward.
The Director of the Mexican National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, showed how by looking at all the indicators for specific regions, Mexican policymakers can assess the impact of public policies. Moreover, they can also identify the priority sectors for interventions in different regions of the country.
The Statistician General at the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics went a step further, arguing how useful it was for them to be able to include a subjective indicator of poverty. This revealed that, in Nigeria, many more people than those captured by official statistics would consider themselves as poor. People with valuable assets such as land and cattle could still live in poor housing conditions without basic services, issues that need to be addressed by public policies.
All the presentations by the different governments highlighted the importance of having data for these indicators in different areas, but not necessarily of having them pulled together into a single index. Do we really need to aggregate them into a single global indicator? What is the added value of this operation?
I was often told that the power of the poverty headcount ratio (often called the dollar a day poverty) lies in its simplicity and the fact that it is just one number. Is the construction of such a complex indicator going to help in the eradication of poverty?
Using non-monetary deprivation indicators to analyse poverty and social exclusion in Europe has shown how slight changes in the items selected can lead to huge differences in the results (click here for an example). To gain insights useful for national planning, indicators utilised for the measurement of poverty needs a lot of adaptation in just one country and often use different methodologies. Another challenge is to identify universal indicators for issues that might not imply similar levels of deprivation in different contexts. For instance, not having a floor in the house is not an indicator of deprivation for a pastoralist community.
There is also a problem around establishing cut-offs and the weight of each indicator. What is the cut-off at which we consider someone deprived or not? How many deprivations are needed to consider someone to be multidimensional poor? How can we establish that a slightly higher number of people who have a floor in their shelter correspond to a certain number of years of education? These are all arbitrary and problematic decisions which make the MPI indicator a confused aggregation of apples and oranges.
Duncan Green argues that we need league tables to set governments competing against each other in order to achieve development. Amartya Sen’s critical assessment of India’s development progress, while praising the significant achievements of Bangladesh, despite its lower income, may effectively push governments to act. But how would you act to increase your score under an MPI index?
A government may work strategically on the cheaper deprivations to move the number of people needed beyond the cut-off for specific indicators. Moreover, a large component of the Global MPI is based on input indicators regarding education, such as, school attendance and years of schooling which simply measure that fact that a number of pupils are put in a room for a number of years. As we’ve learnt from the MDGs, to improve performance in such indicators it is enough to force people into poor buildings they call schools (threatening withdrawal of other type of support, e.g. CCTs, for non-attendance); increase class size; or to reduce the teachers/students ratio. Therefore, improvement in these indicators may not be connected with changes in the poverty of people, not even in terms of accumulation of human capital. In fact, none of these indicators measure what people living in poverty across the globe felt they needed. Recent participatory research by CAFOD revealed how the quality of education, adequate facilities and staff for students with disabilities were seen as priorities for people. Research participants thought they were wasting their children’s time by placing them in poorly equipped and understaffed schools.
Finally, the post-2015 framework has to help us reach the remaining half of the poor, those who are most marginalised. However, a lot of research, including CAFOD’s recent participatory study has demonstrated that often disadvantage and discrimination related to disability, gender and age takes place within the household, which is not captured by the MPI, mostly built upon household survey data.
In conclusion, many governments have finally understood the need for multiple indicators to analyse and respond to poverty with appropriate policy. But do we really need to create a global arbitrary aggregate index of so many different variables? Should we add up apples and oranges? As some governments have clearly said during the 2013 UN General Assembly, we need to involve citizens directly in order to understand their perspectives and experiences of poverty. This requires a complex set of new indicators. While providing potentially valuable information, the MPI 2.0 should not become the central post-2015 indicator.