This blog is part of a series of articles written by University of Dayton students, published as part of Counterpart’s Next Generation in Thought Leadership initiative. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not express the views or opinions of Counterpart International.
How do you define poverty? You may think of poverty as the state of being extremely poor: a lack of power and money. However, the focus on wealth alone is a one-dimensional view of poverty. Poverty is multidimensional; a person in poverty suffers and struggles with multiple disadvantages simultaneously. These disadvantages include, but are not limited to, malnutrition, a lack of resources like clean water or electricity, unstable housing, poor quality of work, and little schooling. Analyzing poverty by the amount of income an individual or a household generates fails to capture the true essence of poverty.
Understanding Multidimensional Poverty and Human Rights
Multidimensional poverty focuses attention on human rights or the lack thereof. Those living in poverty face major barriers to the full enjoyment of their human rights. Individuals born into poor families struggle to access opportunities to escape the cycle of poverty. Moreover, people in poverty face obstacles to their participation in political processes and are blocked from pursuing justice for many human rights violations. They are often compelled to work in unhealthy and unsafe conditions. Concurrently, poverty is a consequence of human rights violations. For example, when children are incapable of breaking out of poverty because the state is not providing access to education.
In our research, we explored new international initiatives that seek to better measure multidimensional poverty so that development programs can be improved. These tools can be critical for international development organizations like Counterpart, which supports community-based development projects that seek to redress human rights and multidimensional poverty.
New tools and approaches
The first effort we reviewed was the Oxford Poverty & Human Initiative (OPHI) at the University of Oxford. OPHI targets building and advancing a more structured methodological and economic foundation for decreasing multidimensional poverty. OPHI has identified four targets: broadening poverty measurement, improving data on poverty, building capacity, and impacting policy.
A specific advancement has been the development of the Alkire-Foster (AF) method of multidimensional measurements. It assists with monitoring poverty shrinkage, assessing the influence of interventions, selecting the impoverished regions and individuals, and synchronizing policy effects to reduce poverty. Importantly, this methodology is flexible and can be tailored to specific uses, situations, and societies. Different dimensions, cutoffs, and indicators can be established through participatory processes that reflect peoples’ lived experiences of poverty. The toolkit is relevant for NGOs working in poor communities to help design and focus their programs by strengthening their ability to target issues, groups, and areas, and measure their impact.
Secondly, we looked at how the United Nations measures poverty with a multidimensional perspective. It uses multiple approaches such as the dashboard, composite indices, multivariate statistical methods, and fuzzy sets to identify the level of poverty in different dimensions and create different poverty lines. The result is a Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) which measures the complexities of poor people’s lives. The MPI provides a comprehensive and in-depth picture of poverty – in all its dimensions. Using this system, the United Nations has identified that “1.5 billion people are multidimensionally poor in 91 developing countries, and, in total, 2.2 billion people are estimated to live in multidimensional poverty or near-poverty.” These data sets can be extremely useful for international organizations to use in their overall country-based assessments, specific research, country comparisons, and evaluations.
In looking at these tools, one of our key takeaways is the pivotal role that education – or lack thereof – plays in multidimensional poverty. In wealthy countries like the United States with still relatively high levels of multidimensional poverty, policymakers are discussing initiatives such as free community college or free individual classes that enable students living in poverty to develop the skills needed to work in different areas, such as a trade, i.e. electrical, welding, or plumbing. Investing in education programs and classes that help people develop skills to work and build equity is important, though admittedly not enough to address multidimensional poverty.
Overall, we concluded that eliminating multidimensional poverty requires multidimensional solutions. Given the many factors that impact poverty, investing in addressing a single problem and ignoring all possible implications and complications will not result in the long-term elimination of poverty. Aid agencies like USAID need to recognize that if making a difference in poverty in all its dimensions is the goal, they must be willing to invest resources and political will into ensuring the actual enjoyment of all human rights for the poor and most marginalized.