A better future for the world’s poorest after COVID-19?

Prof. Sabina Alkire, laureate of the 2020 Boris Mints Institute Prize, explains how the Multidimensional Poverty Index can help tackle global poverty.

PROF. SABINA ALKIRE, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative at Oxford University. (photo credit: BRIGHTLENSUK (WWW.BRIGHTLENS.ORG) FOR BSG AND OPHI)
PROF. SABINA ALKIRE, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative at Oxford University.
(photo credit: BRIGHTLENSUK (WWW.BRIGHTLENS.ORG) FOR BSG AND OPHI)
‘Poverty doesn’t go away by itself,” says Prof. Sabina Alkire, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative at Oxford University. “You have to be strategic and you have to try to innovate together.”
Alkire is the 2020 laureate of the $100,000 Boris Mints Institute Prize, an annual award presented by the Tel Aviv University-based Boris Mints Institute.
The prize is given to an exceptional individual who has devoted his or her research to solving a strategic global challenge, and whose public action and ideas have made a transformative impact on global policy formation and contributed to the welfare of a significant number of communities worldwide. The institute, part of the School of Social and Policy Studies at Tel Aviv University, was founded by Dr. Boris Mints in 2015 to encourage research, planning and innovative thinking in order to promote significant positive change in the world.
Alkire was presented with the 2020 award in recognition of her exceptional contribution to the understanding of the dynamics and implications of poverty.
“Usually, when people think of poverty,” she explains, “they think of money. But if you talk with poor people, their lives are more complex. There might be insecure work, or a child who is not attending school, or a problem in housing conditions that they are not able to fix, or maybe someone is not very educated, or faced with other challenging conditions in their life.”
Together with Prof. James Foster, Alkire developed the Multidimensional Poverty Index to provide accurate and actionable data on poverty. The MPI brings together data on the different deprivations or disadvantages that a person might face, with respect to education, health and living standards, and creates an individualized profile. These profiles can then be analyzed and used to construct a comprehensive picture of people living in multidimensional poverty, both in terms of the number of people experiencing poverty and the intensity and the level of deprivation.
“Poverty is multidimensional,” says Alkire. “The overlapping deprivations in a person’s life – relating to areas such as health, education, work and living standards – are measurable and relevant to policy-makers, businesses and civil society groups who are tackling this scourge.”
The index provides policy-makers with the information necessary to understand the true nature of poverty in a country or region, as well as in specific groups within countries – for example, age categories or ethnic groups.
“When you know how people are poor, and where they are poor, then, given the limited resources that we all have – even more so in a crisis time – you need to be able to direct them where they will have the biggest impact. The MPI as a policy tool helps with that,” she explains.
As an example, Alkire recounts that when authorities in Costa Rica analyzed their budget allocation by the level of poverty, they found that they were investing the largest sums of money in the least poor locations. Reallocating funds to other areas and sectors led to a countrywide reduction in poverty.
With the COVID-19 pandemic set to increase global poverty rates for the first time since 1998, Alkire’s Multidimensional Poverty Index is particularly timely.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is pushing many more people into poverty and vulnerability, and the very survival of people with multiple comorbidities is at risk,” she notes.
The loss of jobs, initially caused by worldwide lockdowns, and now due to the accompanying recession, is leading to a poverty surge.
She adds that COVID-19 fatality rates among the poor are higher due to coexistence of multiple deprivations. While the wealthy, explains Alkire, justifiably view COVID-19 as the major threat to their lives, for those who are poor, it can be just one of many such threats. Malnourishment, indoor air pollution, or lack of clean water are all conditions that can contribute to a higher COVID-19 death toll among the poor.
Paradoxically, Alkire contends that the current global pandemic itself presents an opportunity for society to improve and implement wiser policies that can make a historic change in people’s lives. She notes that food rationing programs as a result of World War II actually increased life expectancy by creating more equitable food distribution. Similarly, with the right policy responses, the current crisis could have positive outcomes.
“The hope is there will be a package of emphatic, committed responses, after the emergency phase to restart the economy. If those investments are made with the well-being and economic lives of the poor in mind, then we could have a historic inflection point – a historic change in the course of poverty, and we could really, actually end some kinds of human disadvantages.”
Alkire has the evidence to back up this hopeful outlook. The index that she co-created has already been applied to 101 countries around the world, covering 5.7 billion people, and provides no shortage of examples to support her point.
“India, by our numbers, got 271 million people out of poverty in a decade, and it didn’t have high social expenditures during that decade. It’s certainly feasible.”
ALKIRE IS grateful for the recognition afforded to her work by the Boris Mints Institute. The institute focuses on delivering strategic policy recommendations and detailed blueprints to decision-makers worldwide, and is a hub for the finest researchers and students in five research labs: inequality, renewable energy, sustainable development, water and conflict resolution.
DR. BORIS MINTS, whose institute was founded with the intention to encourage research, planning and innovative thinking in order to promote a significant positive change in the world. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)DR. BORIS MINTS, whose institute was founded with the intention to encourage research, planning and innovative thinking in order to promote a significant positive change in the world. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“I thank the Boris Mints Institute for recognizing the strategic contribution of multidimensional poverty measurement to this global challenge. It’s so heartening that the institute would recognize poverty to be a global challenge that needs a strategic policy solution. This is a prize for all those committed to ending poverty in all its forms.”
Due to the corona crisis, Alkire received her prize in an online ceremony on Thursday, which was broadcast via Zoom and live-streamed on JPost.com. The ceremony featured contributions from, among others, Prof. Michael Kremer – who was awarded a Nobel Prize for Economics months after receiving the 2018 Boris Mints Institute Prize – and a short TED-style talk by Alkire herself on the importance of her research to addressing global poverty in the wake of COVID-19. In keeping with BMI Prize protocol, Alkire will contribute 20% of the prize for scholarships to research students.
When asked why she has made research into poverty her life’s work, Alkire smiles, pauses for a moment, and says, “I think it’s a joining of an intellectual puzzle of how do you measure these things and how you provide policy-makers with a tool. There’s also one’s own personal motivation, which is to try to align with those who don’t have the opportunities that one has had.”
Even with the ongoing threat posed by COVID-19, Alkire remains enthusiastic about the possibilities of improving and reducing poverty globally. The work, she says, “needs lots of young people and lots of students and their ideas and imagination, creativity, and hard work. The hope is that if enough people catch this vision and work towards it, we could see it in action, and that would at least be a good ending to a very, very difficult story.”
Can a better future emerge from this global health crisis, which will provide better access to food and medical treatment for the world’s poor? Smiling, she says, “That’s the deepest hope of my heart.”
This article was written in cooperation with the Boris Mints Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions to Global Challenges.