Measuring what really matters in global poverty

There’s much more to poverty than just low household income

Sharon Bessell

Development, Government and governance, Education, Health | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

18 October 2018

If we can’t get our poverty measurements right, then we have no chance of getting our policy responses right either, Sharon Bessell writes.

Debates have long raged among politicians, policymakers, researchers, and activists about how poverty should be defined and measured.

Back in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) put poverty firmly on the global development agenda. The aim was to eradicate extreme poverty – defined as an income of below US $1.25 per day. Great progress was made. The number of people living in extreme poverty was reduced from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015.

But is lack of income the only way to define and measure poverty? While the international poverty line, and most national poverty lines, are income based, the Sustainable Development Goals have broadened the global poverty agenda.

Multi-dimensional approaches to poverty, inspired by the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, define poverty as more than lack of income. They argue that the absence of choice, and the inability to live a life that one has reason to value, are also defining characteristics of poverty.

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If poverty is the absence of income alone, then the shame, stigma, humiliation and social violence that constrain, and often destroy, people’s lives, must be recognised and measured.

Alongside debates about the relative merits of income and multi-dimensional measures of poverty are debates about the ‘unit of analysis’. Poverty is generally measured at the level of the household – based on the (usually wrong) assumption that all members share equally. As a result, differences within the household are rendered invisible.

If you think this is mere theoretical musing, far removed from reality, then think again.

These debates matter because they determine how poverty is assessed and the policies that are put in place to get us to that target of eradicating it globally.

Of course, anyone who has lived in poverty knows what it really means to be poor. They are likely to say that money matters a great deal – but so do other issues, such as being safe from violence or being treated with respect.

But, the views of people who struggle daily with the effects of poverty are rarely the drivers of official definitions; nor do they influence measurement.

To date, only one global measure of poverty is based on the priorities of people with experience of living in poverty: the Individual Deprivation Measure (IDM).

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It is a gender-sensitive measure of multi-dimensional poverty, grounded not in existing data or expert opinion, but in participatory research with over a thousand people across 18 sites in six countries.

The research that underpins the IDM was designed to identify the dimensions of poverty that matter most to those who understand it most intimately: people who live in poverty.

The IDM was developed by researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) in collaboration with the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA), Oxfam Great Britain, Oxfam America, and the Philippines Health Social Science Association. In 2016, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade made a substantial investment in its further development, and the current IDM Program is a partnership between ANU and the IWDA.

I am proud to be co-leading the ANU-IDM team, working to have the measure ready for global use by 2020. In the current global policy context, the IDM has a great deal to contribute.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which now underpin global development efforts, reflect a reconceptualisation of poverty. Sustainable Development Goal 1 is to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030.

While the first target associated with SDG1 is based on income, the second commits us to reduce poverty in all its dimensions for men, women and children.

In a global environment that is strongly influenced by the SDGs, the challenge is how to define multi-dimensional deprivation, how to measure ‘poverty in all its dimensions’, and how to know whether men, women and children are being reached.

Existing measures of multi-dimensional poverty focus on health, education, and living standards – which are important, but not comprehensive.

Most worryingly, they are insensitive to gender and to generation. They are unable to reveal whether men and women and girls and boys are moving out of poverty. Measures of gender equality, which reveal social differences between women and men, do not assess poverty specifically.

More on this: What if poverty is a choice?

Here, the IDM has a crucial role to play. It measures poverty at the individual level – not at the level of the household, thus revealing where differences between women and men exist.

The IDM measures 15 dimensions of poverty, taking an innovative, rights-based and people-centred approach. For example, it assesses not only whether individuals are able to access health care, but whether they were treated with respect by practitioners.

The IDM assesses not just whether an individual is employed, but whether work is humiliating or dangerous. In doing so, it captures the appalling trade-offs poor people often have to make in order to earn an income. It also measures time-burdens – particularly important to women, whose poverty is often characterised and exacerbated by enormous workloads.

I am also leading a parallel project, funded by the Australian Research Council, to develop a multi-dimensional measure of childhood poverty, based on participatory research with girls and boys aged between 7 and 15 years, which aims to complement the adult-focused IDM.

Like any measure of poverty, the IDM is not perfect – and its development is ongoing. Yet it is a major step forward, not only in measuring poverty but also in providing data that can help us respond to poverty in all its forms.

As the world this week marks international day for the eradication of poverty, we need to reflect on the importance of not only raising incomes – critical as that is – but of genuinely creating pathways out of poverty.

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