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poverty measurement is not just about the numbers…

August 31, 2011


it’s also about the politics. As this post by Jonathan Glennie on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog indicates, political motivations may indeed be an important part in Columbia’s decision to make the new Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) the most important measure for a new poverty reduction plan.

This shift in the use of poverty measures in itself is exciting and promising; income measures of poverty have been used as the ‘golden standard’  for poverty reduction planning and monitoring efforts for decades. Although non-monetary and multidimensional measures have come into play as far back as the 1970’s (with Amartya Sen’s capability approach and the more policy-oriented Human Development Index by the UN), they never truely found their way into national development plans or poverty reduction strategies. Colombia’s move to make the MPI the basis for poverty reduction targets is a first commitment at national level to explicitly consider issues of education, health and housing, thereby implicitly acknowledging that ‘money can’t buy it all’.

The recognition that poverty measures other than the income-based one may do a better job to guide poverty reduction efforts may be an exciting one but there is a sidenote to this shift in focus in Colombia. The introduction of a new poverty measures changes poverty levels: from one day to the next, the proportion of Colombians living in poverty drops from 64% to 9%. It’s easy to see the temptation in trying to attribute (some of) this staggering drop to political merit rather than a mere change in poverty measurement.

But change in thinking about poverty has to start somewhere and any change in the use of poverty measures will have an effect on poverty rates; either upwards or downwards. Colombia may be criticized for artificially lowering poverty levels by a change of measurement; the USA may be so for keeping its poverty rates at artificially low levels by hanging on to a poverty method developed by Orshansky in, and modelled on life in, the 1960’s. Let’s take the Colombian experience as a positive one and hope it will serve as an example for other countries to think more critically about the poverty measures they’re using and its implications for the most vulnerable in society.

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