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Measuring Poverty

July 27, 2010

Via Duncan at the always excellent From Poverty to Power, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) has recently launched the ‘Multidimensional Poverty Index’ (MPI). The new index aims to measure poverty beyond dollars a day by including other measures of quality of life and access to resources:

The MPI brings together 10 indicators of health (child mortality and nutrition), education (years of schooling and child enrolment) and standard of living (access to electricity, drinking water, sanitation, flooring, cooking fuel and basic assets like a radio or bicycle). It’s thus a logical extension of its predecessor, UNDP’s pioneering Human Development Index, launched in the first Human Development Report back in 1990, which combined life expectancy, education (literacy + enrolment rates) and GDP per capita.

I’m predictable enough in my preference for a holistic approach, regardless of the context, so I think this project is a step in the right direction. And the map is totally cool.

But I was disappointed to see that the U.S., Western Europe, and Australia were not included in the study. (They aren’t the only exceptions – also conspicuously absent are Uganda, Chile, and Malaysia.) To ignore these over-developed countries in a holistic measure of poverty is a loss though, because the indicators of health, education and standard of living used to measure quality of life might paint a different picture than income alone for many people in these countries.

Granted, the standards that the index uses are low – it’s not access to HIV testing or maternal care, it’s whether any children have died or any family members are malnourished. The U.S., Australia, and especially Western Europe would rank extremely well comparatively, by these standards. But it reinforces a dangerous narrative of Western exceptionalism to leave these over-developed countries out of the picture when we’re discussing global poverty. Let’s not forget the dismal state of Native American reservations or the growing number of people living on the streets in our own cities.

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