Methods of poverty assessment must be overhauled if we really want to make a difference

Globally, what percentage of people living in poverty are women? The answer, if we believe some eminent sources, is 70%. In 1995, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action for women claimed that ‘the great majority’ of the world’s poor were women, while the 70% figure is still quoted today by UN Women. You will even find it on the occasional bumper sticker.

But the truth is we simply do not know the answer. Why? Because the methods used to measure both monetary poverty (such as the World Bank’s International Poverty Line) and multidimensional poverty (such as the Multidimensional Poverty Index) use the household as the unit of analysis. This means we don’t know whether some members of the household are better off or worse off than other members.

Last week, on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, I joined colleagues from the International Women’s Development Agency to present a new approach to poverty measurement that is genuinely gender-sensitive and responsive to the stated views and preferences of people who live with significant deprivation.

Over three years, across six countries and 18 sites in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, we worked with local research teams and people living in poverty to learn how they conceived of a life free from poverty and its related hardships. At the end of this participatory exercise, we developed the Individual Deprivation Measure (IDM). The tool tracks deprivation in 15 areas of life: access to food, water, shelter, health care, education, energy, supportive relationships, clothing, freedom from violence, family planning, a clean environment, voice, leisure time, and decent work.

In addition to tracking deprivations in a wide range of dimensions, the IDM uses interval scales. Rather than simply making binary determinations of whether a person is poor or not, the IDM uses a 1–5 scale for each dimension, where 1 represents full deprivation and 5 represents a person who is not deprived. These scores are weighted and aggregated at the individual level to give a composite assessment of the degree of deprivation a person faces.

All of this measurement happens at the individual level. This allows for explorations of intra-household deprivation and can therefore be used to make comparisons of poverty rates based on gender, age, ethnicity, disability status and other relevant features. No longer do inequities that start within the household go unnoticed.

When we piloted the IDM in a nationally representative survey in the Philippines, we had several striking findings. First, we revealed much more deprivation than standard monetary poverty lines portray. Second, we did not find that women were more likely to be in poverty than men. While this finding requires further explanation, it is a clear sign that proceeding as if poor people are mostly women is a mistake.

Poverty measurement matters. The effectiveness of anti-poverty policies and programmes can only be evaluated through rigorous impact assessments. When these assessments only take account of monetary deprivations at the household level, they are incapable of revealing the real breadth of deprivation that individuals experience and may mask gendered differences in the shortfalls people face.

To make the next decades of anti-poverty policy work for poor men and women, it is necessary to update our methods of poverty assessment. The IDM is a tool that is ready for governments and NGOs that want to make 21st-century poverty measurement work for, and be informed by, the men and women who live with economic and social deprivations.

Dr Scott Wisor
Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics, University of Birmingham