True Calling

Author:Alan Wheatley

True Calling Finance & Development, September 2015, Vol. 52, No. 3

Alan Wheatley

Sabina Alkire is passionate about measuring and eradicating poverty

There are many development economists, but Sabina Alkire is one of the few who is also an ordained priest. Alkire, the director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), wears her religious beliefs lightly. In her small, functional office in Oxford University’s plant sciences building—no dreaming spires here—the only spiritual signifier is a mandala of the endless knot, one of the most auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism.

“People who are deep friends think I’m daft to be a person of faith,” she says with an infectious, almost girlish, laugh. “I don’t see any distinction between myself and an atheist or humanist friends. We’re all coming out of a passion.”

Yet as she discusses the multidimensional poverty index with which her name is associated, it is clear that she is driven by more than a purely academic passion to observe and better measure poverty as a precondition for eradicating it. “We who work in development service, there’s some deep commitment to humanity and to justice—even if the faith is different and even if the doctrine is different,” she says.

A detailed pictureThe aim of OPHI’s index is to supplement the traditional benchmark of income poverty, $1.25 a day, by painting a more nuanced picture of exactly how people are poor in different parts of their lives. “You need both of them to get a good read on poverty,” Alkire, a U.S. and U.K. dual citizen, says.

The global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), based on household surveys, consists of 10 weighted indicators in three areas: health, measured by nutrition and child mortality; education, with years of schooling and school attendance as proxies; and living standards, assessed by access to electricity, sanitation, water, type of floor, cooking fuel, and ownership of basic assets. Anyone deprived in one-third or more of the indicators is deemed “multidimensionally poor.” The June 2015 global index covered 101 countries with a population of 5.2 billion people, about three-quarters of the world total, and found about 30 percent of them on average to be MPI poor. Alkire’s team—and she is at pains to stress that this is a team effort—has broken down the findings into 884 subnational regions, providing information that national averages would miss.

One of the attractions of OPHI’s MPI is that governments can tailor the methodology of the index to their own circumstances, for example by adjusting the weights and cut-off thresholds. Indeed, Alkire says her team spends most of its time now not on the global index but on national MPIs. Because the MPI can be broken down by indicator, policymakers can not only see the headcount poverty ratio but also zoom in on how different categories of the population, say by region or ethnicity, are deprived. In other words, the index captures both the incidence and the intensity of poverty at the household level in different dimensions, thereby helping governments to target policy.

“These two components allow people, especially policy analysts, to get better insight into the poverty of a country by making comparisons over time, better insight into the dynamics, and so on,” says Milorad Kovacevic, chief statistician at the Human Development Report Office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in New York. For its annual flagship Human Development Report in 2010, the UNDP replaced its human poverty index with an MPI constructed at OPHI by Alkire and Maria Emma Santos, now an assistant economics professor at the Universidad Nacional del Sur in Bahía Blanca, Argentina.

In 2014 the UNDP started calculating the index independently of OPHI because of some methodological differences. But they have since made up and have agreed to produce a single MPI again in 2016. “They are great colleagues and it will be nice to be working together again,” Alkire says.

Bhutan, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and the Philippines have already adopted official national MPIs to help allocate resources and measure whether policies are being implemented appropriately. Several...

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