A turning point to end acute poverty

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In 2021, the UK has a leading voice at the G-7, G20, COP-26, Global Education Summit, the Nutrition for Growth Summit and the Food Systems Summit.  It might be natural for the UK to set different goals for each, and juggle many related and overlapping but disparate agendas:

  • For the G20, People (including eradicating poverty) alongside Planet and Prosperity; 
  • For COP-26, investing in building back better – and greener. 
  • For the Education Summit: 5-year pledges to support the Global Partnership for Education’s work to transform education systems in up to 90 countries and territories
  • For the Nutrition for Growth summit – seeking safe, affordable, and nutritious food for all by 2030.
  • For the Food Systems summit – pulling levers of change ranging from gender to finance to innovation. 

Yet in the run-up to the Sustainable Development Goals, Britain’s leadership was a pivotal voice on the High Level Panel pointing out the need for integrated approaches that break silos, and for a “data revolution” so policies were fact-based. That Panel’s report recognised the risk of agendas that were “over-loaded with too many priorities, a product of compromises rather than decisions – lacklustre and bland instead of transformative and focused…  narrowly focused on one set of issues, failing to recognise that poverty, good governance, social inclusion, environment and growth are connected and cannot be addressed in silos.”

What if instead of being an adept juggler across the 2021 global agenda, a decisive global Britain used its voice to call, consistently across all fora, for high-impact integrated policies to end poverty in all its dimensions on a shared planet, based on cutting edge research and data? What if it thereby charted a new legacy of global Britain, one that learned from the past with deft humility, and that invited collaboration that empowered and co-created? We might look back on the 2020s with a nod of approval, even a bit of affection, decades hence.  

But is it logical to propose this agenda with fierce determination?  We may find it difficult to hope that it could be feasible to turn a corner on acute poverty in this season. But this doubt, experts say, could be our own problem. 

Sabina Alkire directs the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. Together with Professor James Foster, Sabina developed a flexible technique for measuring multidimensional poverty or well-being that can incorporate different indicators. With colleagues at OPHI this method is implemented to estimate and analyse global, national, and bespoke Multidimensional Poverty Indices (MPIs). Sabina holds a DPhil in Economics from the University of Oxford.

Binta prepares a meal for her family outside their tent shelter in Chad. Unicef 2015 Cherkaoui

Hard talk on facts: In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling points out that our grasp of poverty reduction is usually misinformed. Consider the question: “in the past 20 years, has the proportion of the world population living in extreme monetary poverty___?

A: almost doubled
B: remained more or less the same
C: almost halved”   

In a survey Rosling did in 14 countries, the topper was Sweden, where one in four people got it right. In the UK, 9% of us chose the correct answer (which is C: extreme monetary poverty almost halved), in the US, it was 5%. Other questions covered girls’ education, immunization, disasters, giant pandas and population growth. 

Did highly educated people score more points? Rosling was stunned that the highly educated—even Nobel laureates and medical researchers—did no better than others. As a race our scores were actually far lower than Chimpanzees, one-third of whom chose the correct answer at random. 

Rosling thought the issue was knowledge: humanity needed to update our mental software. So he spun into action, becoming world famous for gripping TED talks, and statistical animations.  It didn’t work. He wrote, “The ignorance we kept on finding was not just an upgrade problem.… The new ideas just wouldn’t take.”  He concluded that we are predisposed to see the world as going from bad to worse, to over dramatize tragedy, and to edge towards paralysis. This is a handicap: “when we worry about everything all the time instead of embracing a world view based on facts, we.. lose our ability to focus…”. So we should choose our focus based on facts. 

Considerable progress in poverty has taken place in the past 20 years. And if we were to scrutinize evidence, we might consider that this is indeed the time to focus on turning the corner on acute poverty for adults and children, for minorities, the poorest, and the new poor. In the wake of the pandemic, the bottom of the distributions needn’t spin out of control. In fact, we could reduce acute multidimensional poverty and the most egregious inequalities, sharply and decisively. 

The many-sided nature of poverty is now measured, tracked – and can be reduced

Poverty has for a long time been understood in monetary terms. However, as Amartya Sen, correctly, explains “Human lives are battered and diminished in all kinds of different ways.”[1]  The many faces of poverty have achieved growing international recognition. Not least, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1 calls to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. So most now recognise that poverty has many forms and dimensions – it is multidimensional. Since 2010 our research group with UNDP has estimated and released global poverty numbers annually. 

The global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) compares the level and composition of acute multidimensional poverty across over 100 countries and 5.9 billion people in developing regions.[2] It complements global monetary poverty measures, by studying how ten deprivations related to education, health, and living standards, overlap in people’s lives (Figure 1). They include if anyone is undernourished, or if a school child is out of school, or if no one in a household has completed 6 years of schooling – indicators relevant to the 2021 Summit agenda. 

Figure 1. The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index. Source: Alkire and Kanagaratnam (2018)

If any person is deprived in at least one-third of the weighted indicators they are identified as poor. So we can say what percentage of people are poor (‘incidence’ of poverty – it ranges from 0 to 92%), as well as how poor they are (the average share of deprivations poor people experience, called the ‘intensity’ of poverty). The MPI, which is equal to the incidence times the intensity, shows the share of possible deprivations that poor people experience. It is used to inform, incite, monitor, and track the impact of policies to eradicate poverty – because if any deprivation of any poor person goes down, the MPI goes down. Sir Tony Atkinson contended that poverty statistics “matter because they motivate people to tackle a key challenge.”[3] That has been the hope – that the global MPI will encourage vigorous action. 

What does it show? In 2020, 1.3 billion people – 22 percent – were multidimensionally poor using the most recent survey data available for each country. The majority of poor people live in Sub-Saharan Africa (558 million) and South Asia (530 million). And if you ask the age of these 1.3 billion people, well, actually, half of them are children under 18 years of age. Across these 5.9 billion people, 1/3 of children were multidimensionally poor, compared to 1/6 of adults. But for all, poverty had many faces so it made life complicated – 99.8% of poor people were deprived in at least 3 indicators, and 83.5% in at least 5 indicators at the same time. And across indicators, 803 million multidimensionally poor people live in a household where someone is undernourished, 476 million have an out-of-school child at home, 1.2 billion lack access to clean cooking fuel, 687 million lack electricity.

Given this rather breath-taking and troubling look at poverty, how can we be calling for a turning point in its reduction? 

In 2020, we studied trends for 75 countries and 5 billion people to see how MPI was reducing (this study was mainly funded by then-DFID). Fully 65 of the 75 countries had reduced multidimensional poverty significantly. The fastest reduction occurred in Sierra Leone (2013-17) in the midst of the Ebola epidemic. During just four years poverty rates in Sierra Leone fell from 74% to 58% – the fastest reduction for any country. 

Poor persons are not passive victims of cunning development strategies. Recognising the steely determination, creativity, and insights of the protagonists of poverty – poor people and their communities – changes the nature of the task

Four countries, among them India, were able to halve their MPI value – in fact, in India 270 million people exited poverty in the decade 2005/6 to 2015/16. And 47 of the countries were reducing poverty so fast that they would reduce their MPI by half or more between 2015 to 2030 if their progress continued at the same rate. 

But all these figures describe the pre-COVID-19 state of poverty. In a simulation exercise last year, based on UNESCO estimations of the impact of the pandemic on school children, and World Food Programme data on increases in food security, we found that the consequences of the pandemic could raise the number of poor people by between 131 and 547 million people, reversing poverty levels to what they were three to ten years ago.[4] Yet throughout the pandemic, many governments have indeed been investing in the vulnerable and the marginalised, so we hope that these estimates are not, actually, what has occurred. But in any case, integrated, high-impact multisectoral policies could build on and accelerate the progress of the last 20 years.

Data on multidimensional poverty could inform a joined-up approach to the 2021 Year of Summits, and also track and celebrate progress. To give but one example of many, bearing in mind the pledge of global leaders at the 2030 Agenda to ‘Leave No One Behind’, and the sting of racial inequalities that have been visible this past year, it is worth knowing that the global MPI can help to make visible and redress not only poverty but also the inequities across region, age, ethnicity and other variables. The MPI is disaggregated by over 1200 subnational regions, and by age, and special studies focus on topics like gender, disability and ethnicity. This provides a more accurate understanding of who is poor and how inequalities can be diminished.

Eradicating poverty – and stigma 

For example, an analysis of multidimensional poverty of 24 countries and 650 million people conducted in 2020 showed that 11 million MPI poor people included in the study “belong to ethnic groups where 90% or more of the members of that ethnic group are poor, and 178 million belong to groups where 70% or more of their people are poor.”[5] Disparities across ethnic groups vary greatly. In countries such as Kazakhstan, and Trinidad and Tobago, the difference in multidimensional poverty across ethnic groups is very small, showing that equity is achievable.

But in Paraguay, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Togo, and Gabon among others, the proportions of poor people differs by 60 percentage points or more across ethnic groups. For example, in Sierra Leone, 74% of the Yalunka are multidimensionally poor, but only 10% of the Krio.[6] Other countries have pockets of poverty. For example, in Moldova, over “22% of Roma are multidimensionally poor, which is in stark contrast to non-Roma Moldovans, of whom fewer than 1% are poor.”[7] In contrast, in Nigeria the majority ethnic group of Hausa people are among the poorest ethnic groups.[8]

So, the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) (which was established in part with UK support) provides clear insights for action among 5.9 billion people, action on issues of nutrition, education, and poverty that might unify goals that are central to multiple summits, and make this year a turning point unleashing evidence-based, integrated and high-impact international action to end acute poverty in all its forms.  How could global Britain articulate this cross-cutting agenda? 

  • Put Britain’s voice and energy behind an integrated, not fractured, agenda. The most cost-effective responses to multidimensional poverty are multisectoral not siloed. What if Britain used all the 2021 encounters to advocate a joined-up, high impact strategy for addressing the disadvantages – in nutrition, education, work and living standards – that, afflict poor people’s lives. Rather than having independent strategies for poverty, education or nutrition, could there be a parsimonious, consistent, goal of cutting poverty according to the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (which will change if any of these change) as well as monetary poverty? Could every summit plan an integrated strategy? 
  • Focus on children. According to the global MPI, 1.3 billion people are multidimensionally poor. Of these, half are children – under 18. One in three children in 100+ countries in developing regions are multidimensionally poor, in comparison with one in six adults. Using the global MPI data we can identify the gender of these children. We know the composition of their poverty, the size of their household and whether all children in their age cohort are deprived or not.  This evidence could inform a high impact global strategy that puts babies and children in their rightful place, as a society-wide priority. 
  • Recognise the protagonists. Poverty could seem daunting if its redress was all ‘up to’ governments. But as Amartya Sen reminds us, poor persons are not passive victims of cunning development strategies. Rather, participatory studies consulting those who have moved out of poverty find that, in over three-quarters of the cases, they cite their own initiative as the most significant driver of change. Recognising the steely determination, creativity, energy and insights of the protagonists of poverty – poor people and their communities – changes the nature of the task. 
  • Back South Asia as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. Over 84% of multidimensionally poor people live in South Asia (530 million) and Sub-Saharan Africa (558 million). It’s not like that for monetary poverty – and nutrition deprivations are especially prominent. Yet in the most recent period South Asian countries also reduced MPI the fastest of any region.  India saw 270 million people leave multidimensional poverty in the decade to 2015/16. In Bangladesh it was 19 million in just five years 2014-19.  Commending and continuing these trajectories is vital. 

We have the data, and we know the framework for a strategy to meet global poverty reduction goals. That strategy requires international co-operation, shared commitment, and global leadership. The pandemic need not reverse the great progress that has been made in recent decades in overcoming poverty. On the contrary it could be a driver, a wake-up call, the basis for a new determination to build a better world for today’s children and tomorrow’s generations. This 2021 year of summits, and the UK’s key global role, offers the platform to seize that opportunity as a central part of the Global Britain vision.

[1] Amartya Sen (2000) ‘A decade of human development’, Journal of Human Development, vol 1, no 1, p18.

[2] We are so grateful to national governments, to the USAID’s Demographic and Health Surveys and to UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys, that make high quality data available for free.

[3] Measuring Poverty around the World, Anthony B Atkinson, 2019

[4] Progress in eradicating multidimensional poverty: Evidence from the global MPI, Alkire et al. 2021

[5] Changes over Time in the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, Alkire and Kovesdi 2020

[6] Changes over Time in the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, Alkire and Kovesdi 2020

[7] Changes over Time in the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, Alkire and Kovesdi 2020

[8] Changes over Time in the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, Alkire and Kovesdi 2020

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