New data by UNDP-OPHI challenges traditional notions of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’

The traditional concept of poverty is outdated, according to a new report released today by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), writes CHARANJIT AHUJA

New data demonstrate more clearly than ever that labeling countries – or even households – as rich and poor is an oversimplification. Of the 10 selected countries for which changes over time were analyzed, India and Cambodia reduced their MPI values the fastest—and they did not leave the poorest groups behind.

As first reported in the 2018 Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), India lifted 271 million people between 2005/06 and 2015/16, with the poorest regions, groups, and children, reducing poverty fastest. India demonstrates the clearest pro-poor pattern at the subnational level: in absolute terms, the poorest regions reduced multidimensional poverty the fastest. Examples include Jharkhand, where the incidence of multidimensional poverty nearly halved, falling from 74.9 percent in 2005/06 to 46.5 percent in 2015/16.

Findings from the 2019 global MPI shed light on disparities in how people experience poverty, revealing vast inequalities among countries and among the poor themselves.  “To fight poverty, one needs to know where poor people live. They are not evenly spread across a country, not even within a household,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator. “The 2019 global Multidimensional Poverty Index provides the detailed information policy makers need to more effectively target their policies.”

The MPI goes beyond income as the sole indicator for poverty, by exploring the ways in which people experience poverty in their health, education, and standard of living.  India is among the countries that significantly reduced deprivation in all 10 indicators. The indicators included nutrition, child mortality, years of schooling, school attendance, cooking fuel, sanitation, drinking water, electricity, housing, and assets. India strongly improved assets, cooking fuel, sanitation and nutrition between 2005/06 and 2015/16.

Still, despite the massive gains made in reducing multidimensional poverty, 373 million Indians continue to experience acute deprivations. Additionally, 8.8 percent of the population lives in severe multidimensional poverty and 19.3 percent of the population is vulnerable to multidimensional poverty. 

This year’s MPI results also show that more than two-thirds of the multidimensionality poor—886 million people—live in middle-income countries like India. A further 440 million live in low-income countries. In both groups, data show, simple national averages can hide enormous inequality in patterns of poverty within countries.

For instance, in all 10 countries for which trends were analyzed, rural areas are poorer than urban areas. “The MPI captures the huge progress India has made in reducing multidimensional poverty across the country, while also providing a more complete picture of who is deprived, how they are deprived, and where they live. That the poorest parts of the country are more quickly lifting people out of poverty demonstrates India’s commitment to ensuring no one is left behind, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and the government’s own priorities,” said Shoko Noda, UNDP India Resident Representative.

There is even inequality under the same roof. In South Asia, for example, almost a quarter of children fewer than five live in households where at least one child in the household is malnourished and at least one child is not. In terms of gender disparities, 9 percent of boys in South Asia are out of school and live in a multidimensionality poor household, compared with 10.7 percent of girls. In India, there is a higher percentage of girls who are multidimensionality poor and out of school than boys. However, the figures for India are lower than the South Asian average for both boys and girls.

“We need—even amongst those living in poverty—to understand people’s different experiences of deprivation. Are they malnourished? Can they go to school? Only then will poverty reduction policies be both efficient and effective,“ said Pedro Conceição, Director of the Human Development Report Office at UNDP.  There is also inequality among the poor. Findings of the 2019 global MPI also paint a detailed picture of the many differences in how – and how deeply – people experience poverty. Deprivations among the poor vary enormously: in general, higher MPI values go hand in hand with greater variation in the intensity of poverty.

Results also show that children suffer poverty more intensely than adults and are more likely to be deprived in all 10 of the MPI indicators, lacking essentials such as clean water, sanitation, adequate nutrition or primary education.  Even more staggering, worldwide, one in three children is multidimensionality poor, compared to one in six adults. That means that nearly half of the people living in multidimensional poverty—663 million—are children, with the youngest children bearing the greatest burden.

But new data also shows a positive trend: those furthest behind are moving up the fastest.  “We looked at data for a group of ten middle- and low-income countries and we found encouraging news that the bottom 40 percent were moving faster than the rest,” said Sabina Alkire, OPHI Director. “A the pro-poor pattern that reduces inequalities in several Sustainable Development Goals.”

In all of the ten countries analyzed other than Ethiopia, deprivations went down faster among the bottom 40 percent than the rest of the population. This pattern was particularly strong in India where, in relative terms, growth in the attainments of the bottom 40 percent exceeded overall growth in all countries. Within these ten countries, data show that 270 million people moved out of multidimensional poverty from one survey to the next. This progress was largely driven by South Asia, especially India, which had 271 million fewer people in poverty in 2016 than in 2006.

The 2019 global MPI paints a detailed picture of poverty for 101 countries and 1,119 subnational regions covering 76 percent of the global population, going beyond simple income-based measures to look at how people experience poverty every day.