Interview with Sabina Alkire, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (Ophi) | 08 July 2019
‘Poverty is not political football and every politician should care about reducing it’
Sabina Alkire, a professor and scholar of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (Ophi), was in Seychelles last week to attend the 7th annual high-level meeting of the Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network (MPPN). She has been described as one of the architects of the multidimensional poverty index (MPI) and the Alkire-Foster method, having written the book – literally and figuratively – on both with economist James Foster. The MPI was adopted as a measure of poverty by the UN development programme in 2010 and has been launched in over 50 countries. An MPI shows who is poor and how they are poor using a number of indicators. Seychelles recently launched its own national MPI this week during the MPPN meeting.
Dr Alkire sat down with Seychelles NATION last week to provide a better understanding and perspective on MPIs.
Seychelles NATION: What is an MPI?
Dr. Alkire: “Traditional measurements of poverty looks at basically how much money people have; how much money is in their pockets and if they do not have a certain amount of money per person per year, then they are considered poor. And that’s important and we always have to consider income but what an MPI does is go beyond that. It knocks on doors and goes inside. It finds how people are poor; are there health deprivations, are children attending school all the way up, is there a problem with housing quality, is there a problem with employment? So it looks one by one at different deprivations because what we find is that poor people’s lives are often complex and that, actually, several things are going wrong at the same time. And sometimes money cannot fix them, so what’s been in a surprise in many countries including Chile, another high income country using MPI, is that not everybody who is MPI poor is monetary poor. In fact, the majority are not, so you are identifying poor people differently with MPIs.”
Seychelles NATION: When was the MPI first introduced as a form of poverty measurement in countries?
Dr Alkire: “It began being introduced in countries less than 10 years ago. In 2007 my co-author, James Foster, who is a very senior economist in poverty measurements, came up with a methodology for multidimensional poverty and the government of Mexico was at that time considering how to measure multidimensional poverty. Mexico launched its official national MPI in 2009, Bhutan soon followed in 2010, Colombia in 2011 then Chile and many other countries.”
Seychelles NATION: How does MPIs affect and shape policy-making?
Dr Alkire: “We call it a high resolution lens because there are two things that it does that are very useful. First of all, you can disaggregate it so, for instance, you can identify who is poor by age; is it children, adults or old people. Where are they, in rural areas or urban areas? What kind of provinces and villages? You can disaggregate the data however the data permits to look at different groups of the population. Each person has their own poverty profile because one might be deprived in three indicators while another is deprived in four. These information can better inform policy making, budget allocations and programmes. It provides the evidence needed for integrated policies and for budget allocations that matches. So, for example, Costa Rica launched its MPI in 2015 and when they analysed their budget they found that they had zero allocation for some of their deprivations. Hence its president passed a presidential decree stating that the budget should reflect the MPI, and so they did that with the same resources since they were facing fiscal austerity and could not increase the budget. They simply re-arranged it and then they saw an accelerated reduction of MPI.”
Seychelles NATION: How is the MPI linked to the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs)?
Dr Alkire: “There are a total of 17 sustainable development goals and the first goal is to end poverty in all of its forms, so the MPI is linked to this goal. The SDGs have 169 indicators, and one among these is to end monetary poverty measures by $1.90 a day. Meanwhile target 1.2 is to cut multi-dimensional poverty so the MPI comes out of two of the 169 indicators. The MPI is also an SDG indicator itself as it is a very high priority in the SDGs. There are two other ways the MPI relates to the SDGs. As you know they focus on not leaving anyone behind, so I already mentioned that we can disaggregate the MPI and see over time if the poorest are catching up. But also, because the MPI covers indicators from other SDGs such as hunger, children in school, housing and water. It helps to look and track who is being left behind in more than one SDG. It’s sort of a good headline indicator for progress in SDGs and for breaking silos. The other link to the SDGs is that it has been found to be cheaper and more effective to have integrated multi-sectoral policies and that’s hard to do because ministers tend to compete. When there is political leadership however, as there is in Seychelles, leaders can say ‘yes you can compete in other spaces, but when it comes to poverty I need my ministers to work together to move the needle on poverty and fight it’. The minister of health needs the minister of water and sanitation, or whatever the equivalent is in Seychelles, for instance.”
Seychelles NATION: What are some of the defining results of MPIs in countries that adopted it earlier than most, such as Mexico and Columbia?
Dr Alkire: “First of all, poverty has gone down. Colombia started off with 30% of people living in poverty in 2010 and it was less than 20% in 2018, which is the most recent statistics. It has come down by one-third in eight years so Colombia is on track to come down by half in 15 years. Another success is in coordination. When you have ministries and agencies coordinating and learning from each other, they find it easier to also coordinate in other areas. Political transition is another of our success stories. A poverty measure might be launched by a president of one government and it could be that the next government rejects the measure but we have had successful transitions in different countries. We will have a session on this during our meeting in Seychelles with Mexico, Colombia and Chile because they all had a change in government with a change in political parties in power. They fought elections with each other, someone else won but they kept using the MPI because, at the end of the day, it reflects poor people’s lives. And that is not political football, that is reality and every politician has to care about reducing it.
Seychelles NATION: Seychelles recently launched its MPI earlier this week, how will it impact on the citizens and their lives?
Dr Alkire: “Clearly this is in the hands of Seychellois and the leaders here, both in government and the private sector. But the hope is – as it has happen in other countries – that the MPI becomes a tool to make visible people right now who are suffering, who are struggling but who might not be identified as monetary poor. Or, if they receive a cash transfer, it may not solve their problems; they might have different types of problem. In many countries, money cannot solve health problems. By making them visible, you are acknowledging people who would otherwise have felt excluded and felt that nobody cares. Secondly, with the information on their lives it will make it easier for the government to take concrete actions to reduce poverty because they know how they are poor. We at the Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network (MPPN) wanted to come to Seychelles to understand how the MPI works in small island developing states (Sids). Our hope is that it will work well in Seychelles and that Seychelles will be an ambassador among other small island developing states, other countries with specific needs, because we need to learn from you.”