Professor Sabina Alkire at the Cumberland Conversation

Published Date: 
Friday, 27 November 2015

The multidimensional poverty measure – pioneered by Sabina Alkire and her colleague James Foster, and inspired by the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen – represents an attempt to understand poverty from the perspective of its protagonists: poor people.  

 Alkire, a Professor in International Affairs at George Washington University and Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), explained to an audience at the Cumberland Conversation how this measurement tool was designed, and what it can tell us about poverty.   Alkire began by observing that the poor juggle different aspects of destitution. A single household may experience malnourishment, domestic violence, a leaky roof, and uncertain employment. However, focussing on a single indicator – for instance, income level – does not tell us the full story.   

After witnessing the impact of poverty first hand, Alkire determined that it has three core dimensions: health, education, and living standards. 

 Each dimension of poverty has ten indicators, which have been determined after detailed fieldwork among those who live in poverty. For example, a person who cooks with dung, wood or charcoal is likely to suffer health effects from indoor pollution.  Similarly, a person who needs to walk for more than 30 minutes to obtain clean water suffers  deprivation. Both indicators are included in the measure.    

Alkire used the case study of Natalie, a 20 year-old woman in Cameroon, to illustrate how the multidimensional poverty measurement operates.  

Natalie, her husband, his other wife and their five children live in a house without electricity and with a dirt floor.  She gets her water from the river, which is unclean, and has no sanitation.  Instead of focussing on a single dimension or indicator, we can see the diversity of deprivation in Natalie’s life.  

 However, Alkire readily conceded that even the multidimensional poverty measurement cannot tell the full story of Natalie’s life.  Despite her deprivation, Natalie is a happy person with a sense of hope and optimism.  Similarly, we do not know the full story of the sadness Natalie has experienced.  Her family is close to Boko Haram region of Nigeria, their cattle have been stolen, and two of her children have died.   

The multidimensional poverty measure has unique advantages. 

 First, it aggregates the different dimensions to poverty to a single figure, so it is possible to compare countries and regions easily to identify which are the poorest in a multidimensional sense, and not just in terms of income. Second, by focusing on a variety of deprivation indicators, the tool reveals not just the percentage of poor people in a country, but also the intensity of their poverty.  Third, because the measurement focuses on the circumstances of individuals, it can be broken down to examine any relevant grouping in a country, for example, by gender and age.  The individual focus of the tool can highlight regional differences in poverty.  In Nigeria, for instance, poverty ranges from three percent to 94 percent depending on the region.    

Despite Alkire’s determination to ensure that she and her team complete their ‘number crunching’ to the highest possible standard, she also said that reality checks are important.  This can come in the form of researchers making trips to the field and spending time with local people.  Seeing people experiencing poverty can provide the researcher with a sense of urgency in working towards its alleviation.  

Across the 101 countries and 5.2 billion people that Alkire and her team have assessed, 30 percent of them are poor. 

 In exposing the details and nuances of deprivation, the multidimensional poverty measurement provides a tool that can show governments and NGOs where resources must be directed to fight poverty and, hopefully, to reduce that figure.   The measure is already being used by several governments, and Alkire will know by March next year whether it will be used as tool for measuring the progress of the recently launched Sustainable Development Goals, the successors of the Millennium Development Goals, aimed at eliminating global poverty by 2030.