The many dimensions of poverty

The many dimensions of poverty

Date: 16 November 2012

The Oxford WDM group held a talk on the many dimensions of poverty with Sabina Alkire, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI). It was a great event and half of the people who attended were new to WDM and so hopefully will have come away interested in getting involved with local campaigning. After Sabina’s talk, the audience had a chance to have a short discussion amongst themselves before starting the question and answers section which created a real buzz in the room.

Here is an account of the event by Kate Griffin from the Oxford group.

Sometimes I’m afraid my son will be killed for something as insignificant as a snack.

That’s what one woman told researchers when they asked her what it means to be poor. Sabina Alkire, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) shared stories like this when she spoke at the Oxford Town Hall.

The research done by OPHI has made one thing crystal clear: poverty cannot be defined by income alone. For a start, it’s difficult to establish what a certain income level actually means in terms of quality of life. One of the many surprising statistics we heard was that in India, 53 per cent of malnourished children are not defined as income-poor. If you looked at income alone, you would conclude that those malnourished children are just fine.

That’s why OPHI, working with the United Nations Development Programme, developed the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). This is intended to measure acute multidimensional poverty and looks at ten indicators across three dimensions: health, education and standard of living. The indicators are then given different weights in the calculation depending on how important they are. A person is considered poor if they are deprived in at least a third of the weighted indicators.

For example, if a child has died in your family, your house has a dirt floor, you cook with dung and it takes you more than 30 minutes to get clean drinking water, you would be defined as MPI poor, or multidimensionally poor.

The question and answer session after Sabina’s talk raised some interesting issues. Sabina told us that OPHI are always painfully aware of how “crude” their measure is and how it isn’t necessarily nuanced enough at a local or even national level. One way they tried to remedy this was to ask people in different countries to help them out. “We’ve reached out to countries, saying: ‘This is a crude measure. You can do better. Why don’t you do better?’” One response to this request for help came from Kenya. A woman told OPHI that they had to add cooking with charcoal as an indicator. They already had “cooking with wood or dung” as an indicator, but she insisted that charcoal should be included too, because Kenyan people so often suffer respiratory problems as a result of cooking with it.

It was clear from the questions asked that many people in the room were already deeply engaged with the issues, which made for a lively and respectful discussion that could have gone on for much longer. As we ran out of time and drew the meeting to a close, it was at least clear that more sophisticated tools for measuring poverty take us one step closer to eradicating it.

Oxford WDM will be holding an end of year social on Tuesday 11 December at the Head of the River pub.

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