Poverty index: toy of social scientists?

Poverty index: toy of social scientists?

21st August 2010, Comments 0 comments

A new model to examine world poverty has been launched, but will it make any difference to those it seeks to measure?

Hopes are high that the new Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) will be an effective tool in the war on poverty. The index has been developed by a research organisation connected to Oxford University in the UK in cooperation with the United Nations.
Traditionally poverty has been measured by primarily focusing on the average income of a country and its population (the Human Development Index or HDI). A standard is set and anyone living on an income below that standard is considered poor.
Sabina Alkire, director of the Oxford University research unit, says that this traditional method is just too simplistic for the modern world.

The new method looks at a combination of ten factors including health, education and standard of living. And it seeks to identify where these factors overlap at household level. Sabina Alkire explains:
"A child is not going to school, but that child may also be malnourished and its family may never have gone to school. And is there a school? So the barriers to his entry to school are: one, is there a school? Two, do the child's parents actually know the value of schooling and of sending the child to school and helping with homework? And three: when the child is at school, can it concentrate, can it learn? Because it may be malnourished and not able to concentrate, so we looked at how many of these things are going wrong for the household at the same time."

Photo © Shahnawaz Sid
Colors of poverty

It is this combination of factors which has so far been overlooked according to the Oxford researchers. Using the new method can throw up some interesting new ways at looking at the global map of world poverty.

India vs Africa

Using this new measure there are 1.7 billion poor people in the world - 400 million more than the current UN calculation.
And there are more poor people in India than in Africa - over 50 percent of people in India are considered poor using the new model, 42 percent under the old.

AFP PHOTO / Evaristo SA
Brazil, Brasília : Indigents in Brasilia look for objects and reciclable material to sell, and also for food, in one of the many big dumps in the capital

These people are concentrated in the eight poorest Indian states. This outnumbers the poorest in sub-Saharan African countries - there the concentration of poverty is worse, but overall numbers in South Asia are higher.
The new method allows a measure of the intensity of poverty which means pockets of poverty can be directly compared around the world and, according to the researchers, the best ways of tackling them found.

But not everyone is impressed by the new index.
Paul Hoebink, a development cooperation expert in Nijmegen, agrees that looking at income alone is not good enough because it is relative to environment. Being poor in the US, for example, is not the same as being  poor in Africa.
Sudan, Kadugli : Sudanese villagers pump water from a well in their village in the South Kordofan region of Kadugli on 2 August 2010

But Hoebink says the much-heralded new model is not that new at all. This way of thinking has been around for years, he argues, and he sees the launching of grand new models as a sort of competition between competing social scientists.
Specifically he is not very impressed with the MPI model because the different causes of poverty that the model focuses on are very difficult to measure.
"That makes this model a bit dubious. Of course you can measure a little bit. You can measure which areas are running a risk of getting flooded or what part of the country is most vulnerable for an earthquake or a tropical storm. But in general these measures are dependent on the moment during which they are taken. So on the one hand it's scientists competing with ideas, on the other, many of those multidimensional aspects are just too hard to measure."
Philippines, Manila : Residents whose shanty houses were recently demolished stand amid the ruins in Quezon City, suburban Manila, on 16 August 2010. Hundreds of houses built by informal settlers were demolished inside a private lot after the landlord won a court case claiming ownership of the land

The new Multidimensional Poverty Index will feature as the major measuring tool in the upcoming UN Human Development Report 2010, to be released in October.

Michel Walraven
Radio Netherlands

Photo credits: AFP; Shahnawaz Sid

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