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New global poverty data – coming soon

The World Bank has just announced that it will produce a new set of poverty measures as part of their contribution to monitor the Sustainable Development Goals – and their own goal of eradicating extreme poverty.

It means that a new bunch of data on global poverty will be available as soon as next year. This is exciting news. But potentially confusing. It’s worth understanding of what’s going to happen.

A bit of a background first. Last year the World Bank set up an external commission on Global Poverty, chaired by Professor Tony Atkinson, which was given the responsibility to recommend how to measure global poverty better.

WBreportThe report from the commission came out last week, and the World Bank has already responded, accepting a number of the recommendations (and rejecting others).

Here’s my top-line summary of the Commission’s 360-page report and the World Bank’s official response note. And a quick run-down of what stood out for me as the action points and potential emerging areas to work on – for activists and researchers alike.



So what’s new? 

  • Bye-bye dollar-a-day poverty! The key poverty metric will be reframed as the ‘International Poverty Line’ and expressed in local currencies (people in India will hear it in rupees, in Colombia in pesos, etc). What does it mean? Well, for starters, the poverty line will become the new global measure for Sustainable Development Goal 1.1 – to eradicate extreme poverty everywhere. The Bank also agreed to avoid artificial jumps or drops from updates in the methodology (avoiding a repeat of the hullaballoo when poverty fell by almost a half in a single day – or at least it looked like it did).
  • Relative poverty is going to be one of the new kids on the policy block. Ever strike you that ‘a dollar a day’ was too low for rich countries? Seems you weren’t alone. One of the masterminds of the dollar-a-day measure, Martin Ravallion (former chief economist at the World Bank) has discussed this relationship between absolute and relative poverty. And now the Bank has promised to publish a new global poverty measure that includes absolute and relative elements. In practice that means it will use relative poverty lines more relevant to richer countries. Will they report poverty for the UK? US? Europe? You might want to stay tuned for more on that – the methodology they’re using will be announced sometime next year, before the publication of the Poverty and Share Prosperity Report.
  • The multidimensional poverty measure is another newcomer. The incidence of people experiencing multiple deprivations will be used to monitor reducing “poverty in all its dimensions” (SDG1.2). The new measure will look at ‘overlapping deprivations’ and use the ‘counting approach’ – as in the Multidimensional Poverty Index or the or Multiple Overlapping Deprivation Analysis (MODA) for global child poverty. My intuition is the World Bank’s global measure will be used for cross-country comparisons. National governments will continue producing nationally tailored measures for their internal monitoring process (see some top initiatives in the Global Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network).
  • Poverty isn’t only about income, but also education, health and basic services. The Bank recognises their income poverty measure isn’t so good at capturing deprivations in education, health and basic services (there’s a whole big complicated issue here with prices…). So, as well as the multidimensional poverty measure, they’ve agreed to publish a portfolio of complementary outcome indicators – in geek-speak a “dashboard of indicators” – important in to monitor Goal 1.2. Researchers should be ready to use this new data when it’s out. Hopefully it’ll be disaggregated by subgroups (as in Save the Children’s Group-based Inequality Database) to monitor the Leave No One Behind commitment. And if it isn’t, well, it’ll be another target for influencing.
  • Much better links are needed between global monitoring and national analysis. The Bank is committed to publishing a brief on national poverty statistics in next year’s Poverty and Share Prosperity Report. This promises to be particularly useful tool for colleagues working in country offices or on country analysis.
  • Better data disaggregation is badly needed. The Bank agrees to provide disaggregated figures of poverty for children and young adults as part of its poverty profile. This is essential to eradicate child poverty – and is one of the asks advocated by the Global Coalition to End Child Poverty. The Bank also agreed to break down figures by urban/rural. All relevant and valuable, for sure, but it’s clearly insufficient to monitoring the SDG pledge to “leave no one behind”. Including disaggregation by other social and economic groups remains a gap.
  • Still no poverty figures for girls or women. While the Bank would like to disaggregate poverty figures by gender, it says at the moment it can only do so by “ignoring intra household inequality” (the whole point of breaking it down!). But there’s hope for change, and a space for influencing:  the Bank’s gender department plans to hold a workshop this year to work on this – definitely one to watch out for if you’re looking to engage on this issue.
  • Subjective measures that reflect children’s voices are not going to be part of the game. In other words, the World Bank will not aim to produce a global measure reflecting the perceptions of poor people – including children – of what constitutes poverty. The Bank recognises that listening to poor people and encouraging their participation are important, and emphasises that it’s doing loads on this area (see this link too).But it argues that applying current technologies mechanically is unlikely to do justice to the “context-specific and depth that requires participatory approaches”. At least it acknowledges the need for further work and says in its response “work that pushes the frontiers of our understanding of poverty, will continue taking place at the country and subnational level”. Innovating in this area remains a challenge for those who care about participatory approaches.

These are what I see as the headlines from the official response to the 21 recommendations from the report. Lack of space means I’ve had to exclude some other responses that are also very positive in relation to improving the statistical foundations for poverty analysis.

We should welcome the World Bank initiative to open this consultation and be ready to innovate. The Atkinson report is an impressive piece of work – not only useful to the Bank, but invaluable to anyone measuring poverty and looking for innovations.

As you see, there’s plenty still to play for. The discussion has only started. As for now, you may want to connect via this YouTube channel  on Friday 14 Nov when the report will be launched in the UK. Expect some interesting discussions.

This debate – on how best to monitor SDG Goal 1 and eradicate poverty – is certain to continue.


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