Making science work for development

Uncovering poverty’s complexities

Revolutionising the world’s understanding of poverty and how to fight it

Measuring and understanding the realities of poverty is crucial to deciding how to fight against it. Researchers from the University of Oxford have designed a novel method to measure the complex factors which define poverty. This method is now being used by the United Nations Development Programme and governments around the world. It has allowed policy makers to identify and understand the causes of why communities are poor, enabling them to provide more effective support for the estimated 1 billion people living in acute poverty worldwide.

Poverty is more than just a lack of income. It is made up of multiple aspects, including lack of access to adequate education, sanitation, housing and nutrition. This complex combination of factors makes it difficult to recognise those groups most in need, and to design national policies which adequately serve the poorest communities.

In order to tackle this problem and allow policy makers to allocate their resources more effectively, researchers from the University of Oxford sought to create a system which helped to measure and understand the different forms and causes of poverty. In 2007, they established the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) and used it as a platform to develop the Alkire Foster (AF) Method of multidimensional poverty measurement. Using this technique they were able to create a more comprehensive picture: using a range of context-specific variables to identify the percentage of the population in poverty, the nature of the deprivations they face, and the severity of these deprivations. The flexible nature of the AF Method allows users to include the most relevant variables for their needs, creating a highly accurate representation of specific populations.

By better understanding poverty more effective policies can be created to fight it (Image Donna Todd / Calcutta Rescue)

In 2010, thanks in part to joint funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development, Oxford’s AF Method was used to create and analyse the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). This index is able to illuminate and rank cases of acute poverty, and takes into account factors around health, education and living standards via ten indicators. It is now published annually in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report, revealing the complexities of poverty in over 100 countries.

The MPI is a powerful tool – it doesn’t just show who is poor, but also how they are poor. This has helped policy makers and donors to design effective ways of tackling poverty. The Oxford researchers have been working with governments around the world to develop their own tailor-made poverty measurements relevant to their national context and goals. MPIs are now being used to create national statistics and design policies in Mexico, Colombia, Bhutan, Chile, China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brazil, with the list continuing to grow. Since 2013, OPHI has been coordinating a global network to connect policy makers exploring or implementing MPIs.

The MPI looks at 10 different indicators to get an accurate measurement of poverty (Image OPI)

The AF Method has also incorporated into other internationally recognised well-being measures. It has been used for Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, and USAID’s 19-country Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, helping to monitor and evaluate large bilateral aid programmes.

The AF Method and MPI have proven to be incredibly valuable tools in the global struggle to help people in the world’s poorest places become independent and stand on their own two feet. They have enabled policy makers to recognise the complex nature of societal poverty and supported their work to address the roots of the issue, all the while prioritising the poorest communities in the most need of help.

Read more about this research in the original impact case study submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2014.

Department for International Development | Economic and Social Research Council