Leaving no-one behind: Who are the poorest poor?

National averages of poverty often hide where the poorest people in the world live, according to a new study published in the Journal of International Development.

Researchers from OPHI, King’s College London and Save the Children UK, analysed data from household surveys carried out from 2003-2012 in 108 countries. Using the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), a measure of poverty that accounts for multiple deprivations experienced by the poor across health, education and living standards, they compared three different criteria to identifying the poorest billion people in the world:

  • Who are the poorest billion people from the poorest countries in the world?
  • Who are the poorest billion people from the world’s poorest subnational regions?
  • Which billion individuals experience the greatest intensity of poverty, and where do they live?

The research found that considering the intensity of poverty experienced by individuals, defined by the number of deprivations they suffer across different areas of their lives, can more accurately reveal who the poorest billion people are than looking only at those living in the world’s poorest countries or subnational regions.

When all countries were ranked by their MPI values, from the poorest to the least poor, the combined number of poor people living in the 28 poorest countries constituted the ‘bottom billion’. Ninety-nine per cent of this number lived in South Asian and Sub-Saharan African countries. When all subnational regions were ranked, the bottom billion was made up of the poor from 307 regions across 45 countries. Ninety-seven per cent lived in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, these results overlook people who do not live in the countries or regions that are poorest overall, but who may suffer extreme poverty individually. For example, 99 million people experiencing the most severe poverty, or greatest number of deprivations, live in China, while Indonesia is home to 16 million people in intense poverty, yet neither of these countries, or their regions, has an MPI that places them among the world’s poorest.

Similarly, considering only the poorest countries and regions does not reveal the existence of more than 1.5 million of those suffering intense poverty in both South Africa and Turkey, and more than one million in each Bolivia, Brazil, Egypt, Morocco, Peru and Vietnam. Overall, identifying the world’s poorest billion people by the intensity of their individual deprivations reveals that 15 per cent live outside South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The question of identifying where the poorest live is particularly relevant in the context of the post-2015 agenda and Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to ‘leave no-one behind’. The researchers emphasise the importance of accurately monitoring how the world’s poorest are distributed, in order to ensure resources and policies can be effectively targeted to eradicate poverty. They highlight the flexibility the MPI offers as a measure of poverty that can be broken down beyond national boundaries to reveal the experiences of the poor at both regional and group levels, including across rural and urban areas and different ethnic populations, but also on an individual basis.

Read the full paper

Gated access: ‘Identifying the Poorest People and Groups: Strategies Using the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index’, by Sabina Alkire, Jose Manuel Roche, Suman Seth and Andrew Sumner, was published in the Journal of International Development in April 2015

Working paper access: ‘Identifying the Poorest People and Groups: Strategies Using the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index’, by Sabina Alkire, Jose Manuel Roche, Suman Seth and Andrew Sumner, was published in the OPHI working paper series in November 2014.

Multidimensional poverty measurement in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Read more about OPHI’s proposal for a Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2015+ in the SDGs.

Download OPHI’s 4-page briefing paper on Multidimensional Poverty in the SDGs.