Blog: Income and Multidimensional Poverty – Fighting poverty in all its dimensions

The way we define poverty has changed. At the Sustainable Development Summit on 25-27 September 2015, the UN will formally adopt a new sustainable development agenda that will include a goal to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. The new goals officially recognise that poverty is more than a lack of money. This is a significant turning point that brings us closer to understanding the true extent of poverty – and a crucial step towards fighting it.

With 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) finalised, attention will now turn to how they will be measured, and how to use new measures to improve governance.  And fortunately governments have some experience on how this can be done. Later this month at a high-level side event during the Sustainable Development Summit, leaders and ministers from governments around the world will underline their experience with a Multidimensional Poverty Index at the national level, used to complement the traditional income measure.  The Presidents of Costa Rica, Ecuador and Honduras and the Prime Ministers of Bhutan and Saint Lucia, and senior ministers from Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and the Philippines, are among those who will argue, based on their experience, for a Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) to be embedded in the new development framework as a measure of target 1.2 – to reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions by 2030.  Such a global indicator to measure progress towards poverty reduction would complement MPIs at the national level.

A new Global MPI would build on the current Global MPI that has been published by the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report Office since 2010, developed with and calculated by the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), a research centre at the University of Oxford. It complements traditional measures of income poverty by combining different indicators of deprivation such as poor sanitation, malnutrition, unsafe water, poor quality housing and lack of education. According to the latest updates of the Global MPI, released in June this year and covering 101 developing countries, 1.6 billion people are living in multidimensional poverty around the world.

An improved Global MPI for the SDGs (the MPI 2015+) would draw together SDG indicators and help us gain an even richer picture of the true reality of poverty.

The side event is organised by the government of Costa Rica with the support of the Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network (MPPN), a group of 40 governments that is championing the use of multidimensional poverty measures alongside traditional income measures at both the national and global levels. These governments also include China, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Vietnam, among many others.

With such diverse nations committed to multidimensional poverty measurement in the SDGs, the Global MPI 2015+ can be complemented by countries’ national MPIs – as is already occurring. Using indicators of poverty relevant to their own specific contexts, the governments of Bhutan, Colombia, Chile, Malaysia and Mexico, as well as the state government of Minas Gerais in Brazil and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, have already launched such measures. Many others – including Pakistan, Philippines, Ecuador, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Tunisia and Vietnam – are in the process of developing theirs.

Global and national MPIs drive forward the emphasis on leaving no one behind because they can be disaggregated by states or provinces, and by other groups. They incentivise synergistic and integrated policies because they show which deprivations affect people at the same time. By identifying how and where people are poor, multidimensional poverty measures enable governments to allocate resources, and design targeted and integrated policy interventions more effectively. People’s lives are complex and we need to take a joined up approach to fighting poverty.

Poverty goes beyond income – by next week that will be official. Now we must equip governments at the national level and the global community with the most effective tools for fighting it.  National MPIs and a Global Multidimensional Poverty Index for the SDGs can complement income poverty measures and help energise a coordinated, effective and multi-sectoral attack on poverty in all its dimensions, driving forward real social change.

Sabina Alkire is Director of the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), University of Oxford and the Oliver T. Carr Professor and Professor of Economics and International Affairs at George Washington University.