More humility about what we think is good:

Reflections on revising the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index

By Sabina Alkire, Usha Kanagaratnam and Frank Vollmer

In her Oxford University Press blog post, “Some value safety, others value risk”, Valerie Tiberius, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, invites the reader to reflect on how to value well-being and a good life.

The blog was written in promotion of her latest book, “Well-Being as Value Fulfillment”, and Tiberius discusses the acts of Colin O’Brady and Louis Rudd, both married and one a father, who became the first to cross the Antarctic unsupported in 2018 for no other apparent reason than: it had never been achieved before.

In deliberating whether such acts were expressions of fortitude or imprudence, she urges us to bring certain human qualities back into focus when we form an opinion about how to value and judge well-being achievements, no matter how big or small, irrelevant or meaningful they may appear to us at first:

“Once we see the importance of what people value to their well-being, and we appreciate that people can differ significantly in what they value, we’ll also see that it’s probably a good idea to have a little humility about what we think we know about what is good”.

This well-formulated appreciation of pluralism in well-being achievements, in what Amartya Sen labelled functionings in his capability approach, as well as Tiberius’ reminder to be empathetic in the process of judging such achievements, was ringing in our ears when we set about writing on the process and outcome of the revision of the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) that took place in 2018.

The global MPI is the internationally comparable measure of acute poverty that captures the multiple deprivations poor people experience across ten indicators with respect to health, education and living standards. The task facing our team at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), together with colleagues from the Human Development Report Office (HDRO) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), was to revisit an index that had grown in popularity across the globe since its inception back in 2010.

Aligning with the Sustainable Development Goals

We had to re-assess, particularly in light of new data possibilities, how to align the global MPI with the Sustainable Development Goals set as global goals by the UN General Assembly in 2015. How could we best measure a set of minimum capabilities that have policy relevance and are associated with acute poverty globally: that is, wherever data permitted across the 195 countries in the six world regions that are home to a fast-growing global population of 7.6 billion people (as of 2018).

While the methodology of the MPI has remained essentially the same throughout the recent revision (whereby a person is identified as multidimensionally poor if they are deprived in at least one third of the weighted indicators), the 2018 revision specifically focused on the indicator level, where five of the ten indicators have been revised.

An example of how tricky a revision process can be was the nutrition indicator. The decision to revise the indicator meant re-opening the debate on what best captures the nutritional status of a child. The original index considered a child being underweight as an indicator of nutritional deprivation, following the Millennium Development Goals. The debate in 2018 centred on whether stunting, underweight and/or wasting represented an accurate and stable measure of a child’s individual nutritional status in comparison with other children surveyed. Consultations with national statistics offices, data providers and nutrition experts, supplemented by extensive empirical tests, resulted in the decision to identify any children under 5 as deprived if the child was either underweight or stunted.

Another thought-provoking debate centred on the revision of the child mortality indicator and the intractable question of whether a family who experienced child mortality over 5 years ago should be considered deprived alongside a family who, tragically, lost a child recently. Previously, the MPI had taken into account any reported child mortality, that is, at any time in the past. The revised indicator focuses on child deaths in the five years preceding the survey. The decision to look at the last five years was based on policy relevance: policies that successfully reduce child mortality will make a visible impact on this indicator, whereas nothing can be done to reduce child mortality that occurred many years ago.

In comparison, the revision of the years of schooling indicator was straightforward. Previously a household was identified as deprived if no household member had completed at least 5 years of education, which matched then-used standards for global aggregates. In 2018 the indicator was revised to 6 years of education. This reflects the average years required to complete primary level schooling in these countries.

The housing indicator had a similarly straightforward revision. In 2010, we had identified individuals as deprived if they were living in households that had a floor made of dirt, sand, or other natural materials – because data were not available in many countries for roof or walls. Since then, there has been a significant improvement in indicator availability across the micro data that we have been using to compute the global MPI. In the revised MPI, individuals were also identified as deprived if their dwelling had no roof or walls or if the roof or walls were constructed using natural or rudimentary materials such as bamboo, carton, plastic, or similar materials.

The assets indicator required by far the most technical work. Previously a person was considered deprived in the assets indicator if they did not own two or more of six items, namely television, radio, telephone, refrigerator, bicycle and motorbike – and did not own a car. After substantial technical analyses and engagement with the literature, the revised version of the aggregated assets indicator included two additional items: computer and animal cart. The former reflects global technological growth, while the latter reflects mobility of people and goods in rural communities.

Opening the debate on crucial questions related to nutrition, child mortality and assets meant opening a valid normative and empirical debate. It also meant that value judgments and decisions had to be taken that will not sit well with everyone. Despite its wide use and recognition, the global MPI has never been without its critics – and this critical engagement helps motivate us to use the available indicators that best capture acute poverty.

To answer valid queries, the revision sought to be done in the most empathetic and scientifically rigorous manner possible, given the challenging task of managing it for so many countries, cultures, norms and values, while recognising climatic boundaries. Some tough decisions were made but, importantly, we are transparent about each of the changes and decision-making processes, as described here, here and here.

The revised global MPI launched by the UNDP and OPHI on the 20th of September 2018 is a shared achievement. Any global poverty measure is imperfect and incomplete. But the key objective is never just to measure poverty – it is to generate strong and understandable measures, so that others are motivated and able to use the MPI to fight poverty. We invite the reader to engage normatively and strategically with our decisions in the pursuit of how best to monitor and, more importantly, advance Goal 1 of the Sustainable Development Goals: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

Sabina Alkire directs the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), a research centre within the Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford. Her research interests and publications include multidimensional poverty measurement and analysis, welfare economics, Amartya Sen’s capability approach, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, and human development. She is also a Distinguished Research Affiliate of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. She holds a DPhil in Economics from the University of Oxford.

Usha Kanagaratnam is the team leader of the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) project at OPHI. Her previous field experience includes carrying out participatory poverty assessments in rural villages in Bangladesh, Indonesia and India. She completed both her DPhil and MSc in Sociology from the Department of Sociology, University of Oxford.

Frank Vollmer is a researcher at OPHI. He holds a PhD in Development Studies and joined OPHI in January 2018 to strengthen the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) team. In his current project he collaborates with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on a rural multidimensional poverty measure. Prior to joining OPHI Frank worked at the University of Edinburgh as a Research Associate in Agriculture and Rural Development. He also worked as a Research Fellow in effective development cooperation at the German Development Institute. Frank is an accredited Lecturer in development economics at the University Jaume I, Spain. His research interests are the measurement and determinants of multidimensional poverty, and livelihood analyses, including ecosystem services for poverty alleviation assessments.

Image: OPHI