Three insights on multidimensional poverty from the UN General Assembly

13 October, 2017

While most media attention at the United Nations General Assembly was focusing on President’s Trump’s first appearance at the UN, little attention was devoted to central themes, such as the fight against poverty.

Ending poverty is the first of 17 sustainable development goals that were agreed by member countries in 2015 and guide the international development agenda until 2030. I was in the UN General Assembly in New York during the second week of September organising an Oxford University-led side event to discuss progress in multidimensional poverty measurement and reduction.

Every year since 1946 heads of state have been gathering in New York in September to discuss pressing international challenges and agree on collective actions to address them. The theme of this year’s General Assembly was 'focusing on people: striving for peace and a decent life for all on a sustainable planet'.

Poverty is not a minor challenge. According to the 2017 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, across 103 countries, 1.45 billion people are multidimensionally poor. Of these, 48% live in South Asia, and 36% in Sub-Saharan Africa. While significant progress has been achieved over recent years, poverty and inequality remain central to the international development agenda.

Goverment of Honduras and OPHI event on 'Using the multidimensional poverty index to track progress of the SDGs'. Photo: Zach Damberger

At this year’s gathering, three events highlighted multidimensional poverty. World leaders came together to discuss progress and challenges on its measurement and reduction. The Government of Honduras and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative co-organised the first of these events, ‘Using the multidimensional poverty index to track progress of the SDGs’ in which the presidents of Mexico, Honduras and Colombia and the prime minister of Bhutan, pioneers in the implementation of Multidimensional Poverty Indices, shared their experience of measurement, reduction and political commitment to ending poverty. The event was also addressed by ministers and senior leaders of international institutions such as the heads of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the League of Arab States, who supported multidimensional poverty indicators at national and global levels.

Goverment of Honduras and OPHI event on 'Using the multidimensional poverty index to track progress of the SDGs'. Zach Damberger

Led by Chile’s president Michelle Bachelet, the government of Chile organised a second event that discussed multidimensional poverty in middle-income countries. The 2017 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index found that 72% of the multidimensionally poor live in middle-income countries. In this context, the event, which also included the president of Honduras and Vice-president of Costa Rica, stressed the need to pay more attention to these poor populations in middle-income countries.

The third event shifted the regional focus to Arab countries. The League of Arab States launched the first Multidimensional Poverty report for Arab countries. The report was developed with support from UNICEF and OPHI and covers 75% of the Arab population. It found that 116 million people live in multidimensional poverty in the Arab region.

“Global challenges require global solutions”, said UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez at the outset of the General Assembly. Here are three insights on the progress of, and perspectives on, multidimensional poverty:

1. Poverty is increasingly recognised as multidimensional

Two years ago, the UN recognised for the first time at the global level the multidimensional character of poverty. This was expressed in Sustainable Development Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms and dimensions. In addition, the World Bank’s 2016 Monitoring Global Poverty report, written by the late, highly esteemed Sir Tony Atkinson, recommends measuring poverty using non-monetary approaches and developing multidimensional poverty indices. Yet, while many countries have designed multidimensional poverty indicators, there is no officially accepted indicator that can be used to compare multidimensional poverty across countries. In the meetings mentioned above, many advocated for the use of a Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (Global MPI) that would be useful for such a purpose. This is still open for debate.  

2. Latin America led the way, now new voices have emerged

Mexico and Colombia led the way almost ten years ago in being the first countries in the world to design and implement official multidimensional poverty measures. Other countries in the region have followed in the implementation of this official measure, including Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, Chile, El Salvador, Dominican Republic and Ecuador. But countries in other regions of the world have also implemented multidimensional poverty measures. Some of these include: Bhutan, Pakistan, Mozambique, Armenia, and the state of Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam).

These countries and many others that are in the process of developing such measures have a high-level forum to discuss progress and perspectives on multidimensional poverty measurement and reduction. The forum is having its fifth annual meeting this year, in Beijing.

3. Academic research and policy can come together to fight poverty

The fact that heads of state, leaders from international organisations and senior academics can come together at a high-level panel to discuss progress and perspectives on multidimensional poverty reduction and measurement shows just how far this new view of poverty has been accepted. The Alkire-Foster method to measure multidimensional poverty was developed by academic researchers ten years ago, and it was quickly adopted by national governments to develop poverty measures according to their countries context. Since then a permanent exchange and feedback has enriched both academia and public policy.

The goal of the 2030 agenda is to completely eradicate extreme income poverty and reduce by half poverty in all its dimensions. In this context, meetings of global leaders on multidimensional poverty, like those held at the UN General Assembly last month, reaffirm the commitment, leadership and challenges ahead in achieving such goal.

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About the author(s)
Felipe Roa-Clavijo
Researcher and Global Policy Network Lead

Gisela Robles Aguilar / OPHI