History of OPHI

Beginnings in research and original mission

The Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) was founded by Sabina Alkire and John Hammock and launched in 2007 as a research and policy centre led by Sabina Alkire and based in the Oxford Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. 

Traditionally, poverty has been conceived of as a lack of money and measured using monetary measures. OPHI was established to help change the way the world understands and analyses poverty by developing the theory around poverty as a multidimensional phenomenon and translating this into methodologies that could be used to measure and reduce it.

Our goal was to do poverty research that shaped action – with a committed and diverse team, working alongside those with different powers, be they protagonists of poverty or policy actors.  

Sabina Alkire and John Hammock

OPHI's work is based on the Alkire-Foster (AF) method developed by Sabina Alkire and James Foster in 2007. This forms the foundation of the majority of OPHI's research across poverty and wellbeing. It combines the counting approach with the Foster-Greer-Thorbecke class of decomposable monetary poverty measures - which James Foster had worked on - and is applied to multidimensional data.

The AF method was influenced by the 'Capability Approach' of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Jean Drèze and Martha Nussbaum which sees human progress as ‘the progress of human freedom and capability to lead the kind of lives that people have reason to value’ (Drèze and Sen 2013: 43). Inspired by Amartya Sen, OPHI was set up to operationalise this work in welfare economics. Amartya Sen sits on the Advisory Committee of OPHI and gave the keynote speech at the launch event of OPHI in Oxford, May 2007.

Using the AF method's simplest measure, OPHI then worked on developing a flexible and intuitive tool, a Multidimensional Poverty Index, or MPI, to measure a selection of poverty indicators grouped under a set of easy-to-grasp dimensions. The purpose of an MPI is to provide information on the breadth and depth of poverty in a society, and to show how people are poor, to enable the development of more effective evidence-based policies for poverty reduction. A key design feature of the MPI is that it can be disaggregated by demographic groups and geographic areas, and broken down by indicator, to further illuminate patterns of poverty across society.

In addition to the MPI, from the outset OPHI also worked on the Missing Dimensions project (2007-2009). Missing dimensions were aspects of life traditionally overlooked by poverty measurement but cited by people living in poverty as important parts of their experience. OPHI focused on ways of standardizing the measurement of Quality of Work, Empowerment, Physical Safety, Social Connectedness and Psychological Wellbeing and Happiness. The hope was that Missing Dimensions would be incorporated into household surveys to break longstanding data bottlenecks that inhibit stronger measures of multidimensional poverty. 

The Global MPI offers an international global standard of multidimensional poverty

The 20th anniversary edition of the Human Development Report in 2010 marked an important milestone when OPHI joined forces with the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report Office to release a new measure, the global MPI, that has since been reported in the UN’s HDRs.

The purpose of the global MPI is to track multidimensional poverty on a global scale with a measure that is internationally comparable. It offers a multidimensional complement to the World Bank's global $2.15/day measure for monetary poverty. Revised in 2018 to align with the Sustainable Development Goals, the MPI has been further disseminated in an annual joint report between OPHI and the UNDP since 2018. 

As of 2022, the global MPI covers over 100 countries and over 1,200 subnational regions, with disaggregation by urban-rural area, age groups, gender of the household head, and in some cases ethnicity, and disability status. All analyses are thoroughly documented, and all computational files are shared publicly online.

Tailored Official National MPIs to guide poverty reduction

While the global MPI set an international benchmark for cross-country multidimensional poverty measurement, some countries saw the value of creating their own nationally tailored measures to better understand poverty in their contexts. 

The first national MPIs were introduced by Mexico (2009), Bhutan (2010) and Colombia (2011), all with technical assistance from OPHI. Countries in Latin America drove the early adoption of the MPI, followed by South Asia, the Arab States and Sub-Saharan Africa. As of 2023, there are more than 40 countries with national MPIs, including highly populated countries, such as India and Nigeria, and countries with higher poverty levels including Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Malawi. The adoption of national MPIs has been a collaborative endeavour driven by countries and supported by multiple UN agencies, Development Banks and international partners.      

MPI is one version of a measure based on the AF method. In 2010 Bhutan launched the Gross National Happiness Index to assess happiness levels across Bhutan. GNH adapts the AF method to compute GNH as one minus the MPI shifting the focus from deprivations to sufficiency in each indicator. In 2012, the International Food Policy Research Institute launched another AF-method style measure, the Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), developed with OPHI and funded by USAID, to reveal empowerment gaps within the household between women and men. 

Countries join together to form the Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network

To help share experiences on the development and use of MPIs by high-level policy makers, in 2013 OPHI organised the launch of a South-South network in Oxford graced by the presence of Colombia's President Santos and OPHI Advisor Professor Amartya Sen, as well as delegates from 16 countries. The Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network, or MPPN, took OPHI as its Secretariat and the original Steering Committee included Mexico, Colombia, South Africa and China. 

In 2013, the newly formed MPPN hosted its first Side Event at the UN General Assembly, which called for a multidimensional poverty target to be adopted in the successor to the Millennium Development Goals. The call was answered and in 2015, the reduction of multidimensional poverty was included as Indicator 1.2.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Together with OPHI, the MPPN had helped put multidimensional poverty on the agenda of the UN. 

Since 2013, the MPPN has hosted Annual Meetings and high-level side events on the margins of the UN General Assembly and UN Statistical Commission. It also organizes other platforms for peer learning and knowledge exchange and serves as a repository for information about national MPIs and their policy use. Some of these are shared in the MPPN's magazine, Dimensions, which is published online in English and Spanish. In 2023, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the MPPN, OPHI launched the MPI Ambassadors and Champions programme to create a network of individuals who have made an important contribution to positioning the MPI as a tool for poverty reduction while in office. 

Knowledge Exchange around the world

From the beginning, OPHI has been committed to teaching and building capacity in measurement among professionals from many countries whose capabilities can take MPI to the next phase. OPHI held its first technical annual Summer School in India in 2008. It subsequently held summer schools in Peru, Jordan, the Netherlands, Indonesia (twice), USA (twice), Nicaragua, the UK (twice), China, Morocco (twice) and Colombia. OPHI has offered an Executive Education programme, a high-level course for policy leaders, since 2021. From 2020-2022 OPHI offered a facilitated Massive Open Online Course with the UNDP, which is now available as a self-paced virtual course. OPHI regularly organises seminars on innovative research related to multidimensional poverty measurement.

Research into advancing the understanding of poverty through measurement continues

In 2015, OPHI authors published Multidimensional Poverty Measurement and Analysis by Alkire, Foster, Seth, Santos, Roche and Ballon. In 2019, OPHI and UNDP published How to build a National Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI): Using the MPI to inform the SDGs. OPHI's research is regularly translated into policy briefings and sometimes shared via the MPPN's magazine for policymakers, Dimensions.

OPHI has continued to innovate methodologically and empirically and been engaged in disseminating its broad research activities through published papers, working groups and conferences. As a result its work has been cited in influential fora.  For instance, the 2017 Atkinson Commission on Global Poverty advocated the use of MPIs for poverty comparisons, motivating the World Bank’s publication of a Multidimensional Poverty Measure (MPM) based on the AF method. In 2023, the World Bank announced that the global MPI would be included among the World Development Indicators signalling an important milestone in the adoption of multidimensional approaches.  

Involving the private sector in poverty reduction

Poverty reduction involves all of society. In 2019, OPHI and the University of Oxford launched a new social enterprise, SOPHIA-Oxford, to work with the private sector to reduce multidimensional poverty among the employees and value chain staff of companies. SOPHIA-Oxford worked with a public private partnership in Costa Rica, Horizonte Positivo to trial the use of a Business MPI in 70 businesses. In 2022, SOPHIA-Oxford itself spun out Wise Responder to help extend the MPI into the financial community to continue work on the Business MPI and explore extensions to social financing and investment.

Awards and international recognition 

OPHI's work has been recognised consistently as international recognition grows for the importance of the multidimensional approach to measuring poverty and thinking about development gains. OPHI was awarded the Award for Betterment of the Human Condition given by the International Society for Quality of Life Studies (ISQOLS) in 2012, the ESRC 'Celebrating Impact' prize in 2014 for the methodology of the MPI and its applications. In 2015, OPHI's work was included in a list of the top 20 most impressive examples of UK research contributing to global development compiled by the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKDCS). In 2020, the University of Oxford was awarded the Queen's Anniversary Prize for OPHI's work on the measurement and understanding of global poverty and the contribution of its applied research to improving policymaking in poverty reduction by governments and international agencies. 

John Hammock and Sabina Alkire

Pictured left to right: John Hammock and Sabina Alkire, OPHI's founders