Theory, policy and practice perspectives from Royal Holloway

On Humanity, Poverty & Measurements

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What the world learned from the MDGs is that change is possible” (Sabina Alkire, 2015)

MPI indicators

MPI Indicators. Source:

On Monday 23rd of November 2015, we attended a Cumberland Conversation event with Professor Sabina Alkire at Cumberland Lodge. Sabina directs the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), and has worked extensively on multidimensional poverty measurement and analysis, founded mainly on the Capability Approach and concepts of human development. OPHI aims to promote diverse voices on poverty, focusing on the importance of measurements, which help prioritise poverty in politicians’ agendas.

The conversation evolved around the The Global Multidimensinal Poverty Index (Global MPI), founded on Amartya Sen’s heterodox conceptualisation of human development and developed in 2010 by OPHI. The MPI is presented as an alternative way to measure poverty that is inherently more inclusive and context-sensitive because it places importance on individuals as the protagonists of their lives. The main difference between MPI and other poverty measures is that MPI does not measure the wealth people possess, but rather manages the complexities of deprivations, by looking at how people are deprived from several things at the same time.

Global MPI assesses the nature of poverty more vividly by focusing on 10 indicators in 3 main dimensions namely Education, Health and Standard of Living. The Index looks at each person’s life and tries to see dimensions in which they are deprived. A person is considered poor if deprived of more than one third of the indicators. MPI is calculated by multiplying two factors: H, which is the percentage of people in the region/country identified as poor, and A, which is the average percentage of dimensions in which poor people are deprived. MPI starts with each person’s life and scales upAlkire Cumberland Lodge. In 2011, the MPI covered 101 countries and 5.2 billion people. The aggregated data showed that 30% of the people (1.6 billion people) are poor.

Even though indicators fail to tell the full story of a person, i.e. how happy or hopeful people feel, indicators are a good starting point to ask the right questions of in what ways and to what extent people are poor. This Index does not diminish other measurements’ focus on economic growth like the GDP, but it complements them. For instance, Global MPI results show that 70% of poor people are living in middle-income countries, and that the most deprived poor people live in Asia (54% of MPI poor live in South Asia). The value of these measurements is twofold. First, they can be disaggregated by variables such as region, ethnicity, gender and age. Second, they can be broken apart by indicators to show the groups of people that experience different deprivations at the same time.

SDGsIt was a particularly appropriate time to have this conversation, given that the MDGs are coming to an end and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed in September 2015 at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), will soon be put into operation. These include 17 goals with 169 targets. While they were approved by the representatives of 193 countries at the UNGA,  they were developed by a large number of organisations and individuals from all countries and regions through a vast consultation process.  Sabina has been involved in several participatory processes towards the development of the SDGs, and she is hoping that the Global MPI will be a useful source to measure the common targets. It will be decided in March 2016 whether the SDGs will use the Global MPI or not.

Despite the recognised criticisms that suggest the targets are far too ambitious, Sabina considers that after the MDGs, what the world learned was that change is possible, and thus, having measurable indicators and common targets can help channel energy into the change. She stressed the importance of measurements, as they help us assess and hold countries and organisations to account. She quoted Lyonchoen Tshering Togbay, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, who stated, ‘Measures are like eyes. They help us see things. They bring things into focus.’

Some countries use these measures as their official poverty index, which can be incorporated into policy. However, different countries are adding or changing some other indicators according to the country’s priorities, and hence tailoring the MPI methodology into their own local context. Sabina also mentioned how they have conducted local community conversations to improve the MPI, seeing how local residents view deprivation. She described how important being among the people is, because it gives researchers the sense of urgency to conduct their work.

However, the MPI methodology and numbers were not the only things we learned from the Cumberland Conversation. It was inspiring for us, as young researchers ourselves, to see how impactful research can be on the ground, and how humanitarian research can be. Despite barriers to data collection, funding, and lack of data in certain areas, research can still hold a global vision and be used for the welfare and development of each and every citizen of the world.

Andrea Jiménez and Evronia Azer

Andrea is a PhD student in the School of Management & the Department of Geography. Her work is on innovation hubs, ICT4D and human development, with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa.

Evronia is a PhD student in the School of Management. Her research is on the role of ICTs in organising collective action, focusing on Egypt.

They are both members of RHUL’s ICT4D Centre.


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