Photo of Santos at launch event

Santos addresses the audience at the launch of his book The Battle Against Poverty 

© Maarit Kivilo 2023

Professor Santos launches ‘The Battle Against Poverty’

01 November 2023

The former President of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Juan Manuel Santos, launched his book The Battle Against Poverty in Oxford on 31st October.

Professor Santos, who has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford and with OPHI since 2018, shared his insights as one of the pioneers of using a national Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) – the Colombian MPI – for guiding poverty reduction over the course of his two consecutive terms in office.

The former Prime Minister of Bhutan, Dasho Tshering Tobgay, joined Professor Santos in a moderated conversation. Both leaders described how they were able to reduce multidimensional poverty in their contexts. Professor Santos described how the MPI helped him coordinate different government ministries by offering transparent priorities for budget setting. The former President spoke of how the adoption of national MPIs is increasing around the world. He explained that the reason why ‘the more people use it, the more people like it’ is because of how it provides ‘clear priorities’ for state investment. He shared how he hoped his book and the example of Colombia during his tenure would be useful to students and governments in their analysis of how to bring about poverty reduction.

Dasho Tshering Tobgay highlighted the pivotal support of the Kings of Bhutan who carried out a multidimensional approach towards poverty and wellbeing from the 1960s onwards with their focus on advancing ‘Gross National Happiness’. He described how the prioritisation of wellbeing over economic growth for its own sake has fuelled policies across health, education, culture, environment, infrastructure and social welfare – all of which have intrinsic value as well as sparking growth.

In a lively discussion with the moderator, Sabina Alkire, the audience, Santos and Tobgay then discussed a range of issues. Regarding the connections between poverty and climate change, Santos highlighted the importance of international cooperation for dealing with existential threats and probed the interlinkages between these threats. Tobgay, who also champions the environment, argued powerfully that ‘you cannot achieve net zero without fighting poverty’. He summarised this as ‘zero poor for net zero’ and placed the majority of the responsibility on climate change on leaders.

Santos and Tobgay reflected on recommended approaches to leadership. Santos observed that ‘real leadership’ may sometimes require ‘going against the popular will’. He argued that leaders should not be afraid to take unpopular but far-sighted positions when in government, rather than simply focusing on anticipated electoral impacts. He described the recent rolling back of the UK government and other European governments on climate change commitments as short-sighted. When asked what budding leaders could do to successfully reduce poverty, Tobgay suggested they ‘go live among the impoverished. Drink their water’ on the basis that empathy and insight can motivate collaborative change.

Another evergreen issue related to leadership was how to secure continuity in policymaking across successive governments. Santos articulated how fully institutionalising and embedding a Multidimensional Poverty Index can protect its relevance, reducing the capacity and need for successive governments to change it, and channelling their creativity to strongly reducing it.

Following the question-and-answer session, a video from Santos’ former tutor, the Nobel Prize Laureate Professor Amartya Sen, was shown. Professor Sen considered the book ‘a wonderful contribution to the global battle against poverty, which is incomparably important and yet often neglected.’ He praised his former student, ‘both as a political leader and as an economic thinker.’

To close the event, the former Vice-President of Costa Rica and Senior Public Policy Advisor at OPHI, Ana Helena Chacón inaugurated the OPHI Ambassadors Programme. As part of the tenth anniversary of the Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network (MPPN), which Santos co-founded, the OPHI Ambassador Programme is designed to recognise exceptional leadership and pioneering efforts in positioning the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) as a policy tool to reduce poverty in all its dimensions on a global scale.

Professor Santos with Chacón are the Inaugural OPHI Ambassadors, as both have completed their terms of political office, during which their portfolios included work to end poverty in all its forms, work which used evidence from Multidimensional Poverty Indices to shape policies.

We are very grateful to Andres Salgado-Ragan for generously supporting the drinks reception.