Kigali, Rwanda In November, 300 million more people around the world were suddenly poor – on paper, at least. The latest numbers on poverty from the United Nations, released Nov. 4, include a new measurement for poverty and reveal some surprises.
The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) raises the number of poor by 21 percent, to more than 1.7 billion. According to the MPI, sub-Saharan Africa is still home to the greatest proportion of the world’s poor, but more than half of the total number of poor lives in South Asia.
These numbers, and the new index that produced them, are part of the UN’s annual Human Development Index (HDI), a statistical touchstone. It covers everything from the number of women who die in childbirth to how many people have Internet access and can sway decisions on US policy, influence where nonprofits spend money, and help determine where donors give.
For years, the HDI has set the standard for just how little a person has to live on to be considered poor. The answer? $1.25. But some researchers have long said income alone doesn’t define poverty.
“There are some things money can’t buy,” says Sabina Alkire, cocreator of the index and director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, which launched the index in collaboration with the UN. “It might not buy electricity; it might not buy a public health system, or an education system.”
Ms. Alkire’s index looks at poverty more experientially. It uses existing survey data and categorizes households as poor if they lack three or more of the 10 poverty indicators, which are spread across health, education, and basic standards of living. “For the first time ever, it measures poverty by looking at the disadvantages poor people experience at the same time,” she says.
Examining more than income changes the equation. It doubles the poor in Ethiopia, where 39 percent of people live on less than $1.25 a day. But 90 percent are “multidimensionally poor,” or lacking at least three of the 10 indicators.
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Some specialists have raised objections to the new index, including the director of research at the World Bank, which publishes its own income measure for poverty. Among the criticisms is that the measure is still a single standard, even if it looks at many factors.
“If my bosses were to ask for my recommendation on using the MPI as a factor in allocating USAID resources among countries or programs, I would recommend against doing so,” says Don Stillers, an economist for the US Agency for International Development, in an e-mail message. “Rather, I would emphasize the ongoing need to pay attention to evidence on each major dimension of poverty in each country we work in.”
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Indeed, Alkire of HDI admits her index isn’t perfect. She acknowledges that good data are hard to come by, and not all types of data that researchers want even exist. “These are messy numbers, and comparisons are fraught with danger,” she says. But she also thinks her approach gives existing information more context and helps correct misperceptions.
This seems to me to represent incremental progress in understanding actual living conditions at the type of “overview” level that inevitably influences political decisionmaking and overall public awareness. While the USAID economist is right about the need to look at specifics country-by-country, comparisons are necessary and inevitable. The Ethiopia example seems especially useful in evaluating the performance of the Meles regime which claims credit for a significant level of “growth” and seems to use that as political capital with donors to excuse or divert attention from political repression.
Speaking of Ethiopian governance, Meles has attacked the EU Election Observation Mission for its report issued this week on the May election, which he called “trash“. Thijs Berman, the Chief Observer, responded as reported by VOA:
“If we say 27 percent of the results in the cases we observed had changed between the polling station and the final aggregation, then this is something that warrants a serious investigation about what went wrong and is this something that can be corroborated by other investigations in the rest of the country,” Berman adds.
Tensions about the EU mission have been building, even before the election. The government had laid down strict rules for conduct of the observers, arguing that a previous EU mission observing the disputed 2005 election had violated its mandate. The government has also criticized the long delay between the May 23 election and the release of the final mission report.
But Berman tells VOA the report was ready months ago. He says the release was delayed and the report eventually released in Brussels after it became clear he would not be allowed to present it officially to Prime Minister Meles. “In more than 80 missions in more than 50 countries, it has never happened that the inviting government refuses the presentation of the final report before the first, who are entitled to get this information, namely the Ethiopian citizens. Which is bad for the long-term future of Ethiopia because real stability can only be brought about by improving the democracy in Ethiopia,” he said.