I’ve been writing a lot recently, just not for the blog. I don’t know if anyone is interested in reading about some of the stuff I’ve been thinking about, academically. I bet not. But in the off chance that someone out there has a bit of extra reading time on your hands and you’re interested in how poverty is defined and measured, I’m going to post part of an essay that I wrote for a class last semester. I think that learning about the different concepts of poverty is really interesting, and the idea of multidimensional poverty really resonates with me. Poverty is about way more than not having cash in-hand. And if you have even more time and interest after reading this essay, check out the homepage of the Multidimensional Poverty Index. They have some really thought-provoking charts, etc.
The Multidimensional Poverty Index: A Research Proposal
Poverty reduction has been a primary social concern for centuries. Yet a fundamental question within the field of poverty alleviation has not been answered conclusively: Who is poor? The answer to this question underpins many aspects of global poverty reduction. Poverty must be defined before it can be measured, much less combated effectively.
Poverty is a knotty and complex phenomenon, and techniques to measure it have evolved over time. Advances in poverty measurement generate helpful insights into its causes and effects. In June 2010, a new poverty measurement index was launched. The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) uses internationally comparable data, and it has been well-received because of its holistic and flexible understanding of poverty (Kapur, 2010; Kenny, 2010; The Economist, 2010; The Lancet, 2010). [...] Prior to elaborating on this project’s methods and aims, it is necessary to provide context about the historical landscape of poverty measurement.
Context & Theoretical Background
Systematic poverty measurement dates back to the late 1800s, when pioneering social scientists, such as Charles Booth and Paul Kellogg, began conducting and publishing surveys of urban poverty (Bales, 1999; O'Connor, 2001). Since those early days of poverty research, certain definitions of poverty have become favoured by activists and policy-makers alike. For example, income poverty measures are now a linchpin in discussions about how to fight poverty. Other common definitions of poverty rely on measuring similarly quantifiable aspects of deprivation, such as calorie intake or household expenditure. Such definitions of poverty are useful in tracking prevalence and setting policy thresholds. They are also compelling because they do not require extensive interpretation; it is straightforward to grasp the concept of extreme poverty as living on less than $1.25 a day (Barrientos, 2010). Nevertheless, these standardized definitions of poverty are criticized as reductionist and blunt measurement tools. Increasingly, it is recognised that hunger in the stomach or lack of cash in the pocket are just two of the countless experiences of being poor (Chambers, 2007; Saith, 2005). In light of the shortcomings of traditional poverty measurements, new methods have emerged, such as the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI).
The creation of the MPI was guided by the capability approach, a theory developed by Amartya Sen. The capability approach asserts that the ultimate goal of poverty alleviation work should be to equalise people’s capability to pursue “the various things a person may value doing or being” (Alkire, 2003: 5; Sen, 1999). These are termed functionings, and they capture activities such as doing trade or being educated. A person’s functionings are determined by their freedom, which is their true opportunity to act on their values and achieve their personal aims (Alkire, 2003). Stated another way, freedom is the true capacity to choose one activity or state of being over another. The capability approach presents a pluralistic view insofar as it maintains that wellbeing and welfare can be understood differently around the world. Of course, some fundamentals such as the importance of clean water are universal, but the theory makes space for value-driven functionings, like self-esteem or contentment, which may be perceived very differently from culture to culture (Alkire, 2003). Sen’s ontological basis of positional objectivity has prompted academics to explore new ways of defining and measuring poverty (Giri, 2000; Sen, 1993). It has motivated research to move beyond assessing one dimension of poverty at a time. Instead, poverty researchers have begun to design measures that can account for several aspects of poverty simultaneously. Multidimensional poverty instruments do not claim to present an all-encompassing authoritative definition of poverty, but they do provide supple definitions of poverty, which are full of layers of meaning and often incorporate subjective indicators (Kakwani and Silber, 2007).
Multidimensional Poverty Index
The MPI was developed at the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI). It is based on Sabina Alkire and James Foster’s technique to analyse micro-data by constructing binary matrices to represent individual/household deprivation scores across a set of variables (Alkire and Santos, 2010). The analytical procedures behind the MPI allow it to account for the structure and intensity of poverty, as well as accommodating a range of data types (Alkire and Foster, in press). A succinct overview of the MPI can be given by focusing on its data sources, dimensions and dissemination.
OPHI compiled data from publicly available datasets for 104 low- and middle-income countries. The following three surveys provided the data used in the MPI:
· Demographic and Health Surveys – conducted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
· Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys – conducted by UNICEF
· World Health Surveys – conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO)
Each survey uses probability samples, and data is collected at the individual and/or household level. Most surveys are conducted face-to-face, but telephone and computer-assisted interviews are also used when appropriate (WHO, 2002a).
The child mortality variables contain the data that is most relevant to this study. All three of the surveys include modules regarding child mortality. Questions about child mortality are asked both directly and indirectly. Examples of the child mortality survey questions can be seen in Appendix A. The MPI designates a survey respondent ‘deprived’ in the area of child mortality if (s)he reports the death of at least one child in the household (Alkire and Santos, 2010; USAID, 2010a; USAID, 2010b; UNICEF, 2006; WHO, 2002a; WHO, 2002b). This research project will focus on analysing the child mortality variables in the MPI datasets.
The selection of dimensions for the MPI was driven primarily by theoretical considerations and data availability. Comparability was also a central concern, in terms of being able to compare across nations as well as maintaining continuity with previous efforts at assessing poverty. Sen’s capability approach served as a theoretical basis from which possible dimensions were evaluated. The capability approach suggested that choosing indicators was not purely an empirical exercise; decisions would inevitably incorporate value judgments. OPHI researchers accepted that any index would be a flawed reflection of true poverty, despite its aims to portray poverty accurately (Alkire 2007; Alkire and Santos, 2010). From a more practical standpoint, limitations were imposed by the types of survey data available to measure a given dimension of poverty. This was particularly restrictive, given that data needed to be available for each of the 104 countries in the analysis. OPHI researchers also sought out dimensions that would align with existing international frameworks such as the Millennium Development Goals (Alkire and Santos, 2010). Figure 1 shows the three dimensions and ten indicators that are included in the MPI. The three dimensions of health, education and living standard are shown in shaded boxes across the top of the chart, with indicators shown beneath each respective dimension. In the MPI, the nutrition, child mortality, years of schooling and children enrolled indicators are weighted at one-sixth, with the remaining indicators receiving a weight of one-eighteenth.
Figure 1: The MPI’s Dimensions & Indicators
(Adapted from UNDP, 2010: 106)
The MPI was incorporated into the 2010 Human Development Report, which is a seminal annual publication of the UN Development Programme (UNDP, 2010). The Human Development Report is a key document in the international aid industry and the fight against global poverty. It goes “beyond the analysis of the World Bank’s annual [publications] to provide a broad understanding of the issues and data required to address poverty” (Goldin, 2009: 368). The Human Development Report plays an important role in shaping the directions taken within the field of international development. The inclusion of the MPI in this influential report indicates that MPI results will be distributed widely.
…[I then go on to propose a research project to examine the robustness and validity of the MPI’s child mortality indicator]…
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