New Report Finds Global Poverty Worse Than Previously Thought

That global poverty is a serious and pervasive problem is without doubt. But it appears the scale and scope of it — despite being already staggering — may have been underestimated all this time. That’s the conclusion of a recent report by the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) called the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2014 (MPI), which is considered the most accurate measure of world poverty to date.

As The Atlantic reports, the MPI takes into account certain factors that are overlooked by the United Nations Development Programme‘s Human Poverty Index (HPI), which is the leading source for such data.  While it defines the poor as those making it less than $1.25 a day, it lacks in two key areas:

First, it counted countries as one whole mass, unable to differentiate degrees of poverty within a country and locate the worst pockets. And second, it placed all of its scrutiny on income, without considering other indicators such as health and education.

Sure, making a certain amount a day is one way to measure the physical comforts a person might be lacking: home, food, clothing. But what about limited (or a total lack of) access to medical care? Or barriers to getting an education? And just because someone has a roof over his or head doesn’t mean it’s a sanitary, safe place to live—impoverished people in cities are often concentrated in slums where open sewage, crowding, and rickety housing make for dangerous living conditions. Consequently, many didn’t consider HPI’s income index to be particularly accurate.

OPHI addressed this issue by going beyond just basic income and including what it calls “deprivations”, other needs such as nutrition and child mortality; years of schooling and school attendance; and things like sanitation, water, and electricity. If a person is deprived of a third or more of the indicators, he or she would be considered poor. Degrees of poverty were also factored in; for example, whether someone had a shack for a home versus no home at all.

The MPI’s other great advantage is its ability to pinpoint poverty down to a local, rather than national, level. So not only can one find which countries or regions are the poorest, but which particular areas within those borders are worse off — an invaluable asset for aid workers and policy makers seeking to better target their work.

So what did this multidimensional approach yield? How much worse is global poverty?

Sadly, the world is more impoverished than we previously thought. The HPI has put this figure at 1.2 billion people. But under the MPI’s measurements, it’s 1.6 billion people. More than half of the impoverished population in developing countries lives in South Asia, and another 29 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Seventy-one percent of MPI’s poor live in what is considered middle income countries—countries where development and modernization in the face of globalization is in full swing, but some are left behind. Niger is home to the highest concentration of multidimensionally poor, with nearly 90 percent of its population lacking in MPI’s socioeconomic indicators. Most of the poor live in rural areas.

So there are 400 million more people living in poverty than previously believed. For a point of  reference, that’s more than the entire population of the United States and then some — hardly a minor oversight. Needless to say, this is vital information, bringing to light the dire circumstances of hundreds of millions of people.

Granted, I wonder whether this will make any difference in stirring up public and political action: if an already eye-watering 1.2 billion people living in poverty isn’t enough to rouse humanitarian interest, will an extra 400 million make the difference? Will the numbness and inaction be any less prevalent? If anything, I fear the sheer scale of the problem will only lead to more cynicism and subsequent apathy.

In any case, I’d like to end this sobering revelation on a more optimistic note. As intractable as the problem seems to be, especially in light of widening global inequality, there has been progress:

Nepal is improving its situation the fastest among developing countries—and it’s in South Asia, the poorest region. In five years, Nepal reduced its MPI numbers from 65 percent of its population to 44 percent. Other classically poor countries, like Rwanda, Ghana, Bangladesh, and Cambodia are also improving, not just getting richer but also seeing some narrowing of the gap between rich and poor.

While these improvements are just a drop in the bucket compared to how many people are left suffering — including the hundreds of millions who are not technically poor but remain precariously close — every human life that is lifted up from misery is worth it. That’s why we can’t afford to ignore a single impoverished person.

If you would like to read the full report, including its methodologies and sources, click here. As always, feel free to share your own thoughts and reactions.

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