The Missing Dimensions of Poverty
Sabina Alkire and Emma Samman, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative
Why do we refer to 'missing dimensions' of poverty?
If we understand development to be the process of expanding the freedoms that people value and have reason to value (Sen 1990), then a key aspect of assessing these freedoms is to measure them all for the same person or household in a manner that is consistent and comparable over time and space. Multidimensional poverty analyses point to a number of relevant dimensions of poverty, such as education, malnutrition and gender equality, and to appropriate indicators. However, a lack of sound, internationally comparable data at the individual/household level in key domains creates a critical bottleneck for studies of human development and multidimensional poverty.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) capture the multidimensional character of poverty - why is more needed?
The MDGs campaign has clearly identified and advocated international data collection and reporting on 49 indicators. Such data considerably enrich analyses of human development, and this advance is rightly celebrated. Nonetheless the MDG indicators, crucial as they are, do not encompass all fundamental dimensions of human development, nor for that matter of human security or human rights. For example, they exclude safety from violence, or empowerment, or employment.
What dimensions might be explored to develop a richer understanding of capability poverty?
The Voices of the Poor study (Narayan-Parker et al. 2000) found that the poor valued employment, safety, dignity, 'freedom of choice and action' and 'peace of mind'. Sen has repeatedly drawn attention to people as active agents. He also discusses people's ability to go about without shame, a dimension that emerges in the literature on HIV/AIDS and social exclusion. The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) drew upon this literature and the work of many other authors who have advanced similar observations regarding critically important dimensions for which scant data are available.
OPHI (2007a, b) and Alkire (Forthcoming) have identified five key areas in which insufficient data exist at the individual/household level and proposed short lists of indicators to measure each:
The last area, psychological and subjective wellbeing - is not considered to be a dimension of poverty as there is doubt over the extent to which people lacking in this dimension might be considered poor, and as to its policy relevance. At the same time, it does appear to be an important area meriting future study, and one in which adequate data are 'missing'.
Is this initiative useful and feasible?
OPHI proposes that internationally comparable multi-topic surveys include a set of short modules for measuring important but non-standard dimensions of development. Such modules - if they are 'light' and well constructed - can usefully inform policy for at least three reasons. First, the missing dimensions are arguably intrinsically important. Second, these dimensions may be high impact levers of human development, and oversight of them may block or slow poverty reduction in other dimensions. Each of these dimensions seems to be causally interconnected with other aspects of poverty in complex ways. Third, multidimensional poverty measures can illuminate certain issues better - for example targeting and the distribution of acute poverty - if data are aggregated first across dimensions and secondly across individuals. This argues in favour of collecting data from the same survey or from surveys that can be matched at the individual level; hence the focus on individual/household surveys.
Furthermore, this initiative is feasible, given that a number of efforts are already exploring how to measure capabilities and functionings in these five areas. OPHI has drawn upon and endeavours to support such initiatives. More generally, an outpouring of research on non-standard indicators in recent years, notably in health and in psychology, can inform the selection of technically accurate and cross-culturally comparable indicators. In addition, the major survey instruments used by international organizations are made up of various modules on different topics; the proposed additional modules are short ones designed to fit into this format.
How are indicators to represent these dimensions selected?
The following criteria were used to select suitable indicators for inclusion in the proposed survey modules. First, the indicators needed to be internationally comparable. This is particularly important as there is a dearth of information available on comparative indicators of the 'missing dimensions'. Second, the indicators seek to assess not only the instrumental but also the intrinsic aspects of the dimensions proposed. Third, it was essential to select policy relevant indicators that would be able to identify changes in the dimensions over time. Fourth, and crucially, the choice of the indicators draws on experience with particular indicators to date, i.e., how frequently these indicators have been previously fielded and found to be 'adequate' measures for research purposes. The perception-based indicators have been less frequently used in nationally-representative surveys but have been subject to psychometric testing for reliability and validity; however, these indicators ought to be further scrutinized, particularly in the context of poorer countries.
How will this initiative be pursued?
For each of the five dimensions, OPHI (2007b) has formulated light (8-10 minute) modules that could be added to existing survey instruments and implemented by enumerators trained in a standard manner. The end result was a set of 5-8 indicators for each category. For the full set of indicators and modules, see: http://www.ophi.org.uk. Any comments and suggestions are welcomed, as we continue to critically examine, revise and improve upon this work. We also welcome hearing from groups who wish to field these modules.
Individual/household surveys that are internationally comparable and nationally representative lie at the heart of the initiative, owing to the breadth and depth of coverage, the possibility of comparing data on the proposed dimensions with data that are already collected; and the ability to feed directly into policy-relevant research. As mentioned above, the ability to compare new data with already existing data across individuals is crucial to the success of the initiative.
The proposed indicators and questionnaires to represent the five dimensions represents only the first stage of this process, which will go on to include critical examination and testing of the indicators and questions with qualitative and quantitative data, research as to their value added and contribution, and efforts to facilitate their inclusion (when suitably refined) in various data collection instruments. It is hoped that this work will make a salient contribution not merely to measure poverty, but to create a framework for research and poverty that will reduce poverty as it is described by the poor.
1. Alkire, Sabina (Forthcoming), "The Missing Dimensions of Poverty Data: Introduction to Symposium", Oxford Journal of Development Studies.
2. Diprose, Rachael (2007), Safety and security: A proposal for internationally comparable indicators of violence. OPHI Working Paper no. 1.
3. Ibrahim, Solava and Sabina Alkire (2007), Agency and Empowerment: A proposal for internationally comparable indicators. OPHI Working Paper no. 4.
4. Lugo, Maria Ana (2007), Employment: A proposal for internationally comparable indicators. OPHI Working Paper no. 2.
5. Narayan-Parker, D., Chambers, R., Shah, M.K. & Petesch, P., 2000. Voices of the Poor: Crying Out for Change. New York, N.Y.: Published for the World Bank, Oxford University Press.
6. OPHI (2007a), Missing Dimensions of Poverty Data: Background Information on the Indicators and Survey Modules.
7. OPHI (2007b), Missing Dimensions of Poverty Data: A Proposal for Internationally Comparable Indicators.
8. Samman, Emma (2007), Psychological and subjective wellbeing: A proposal for internationally comparable indicators. OPHI working paper no. 5.
9. Sen, A. K. (1990) Development as Capability Expansion, in: K. Griffin and J. Knight (Eds.), Human Development and the International Development Strategy for the 1990s, London: MacMillan.
10. Zavaleta, Diego (2007), The ability to go about without shame: A proposal for internationally comparable indicators on shame and humiliation. OPHI Working paper no. 3.
Note: HD Insights are network members' contributions and do not necessarily represent the views of UNDP.
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