PPIW Poverty Series: What is the Evidence for the Human Development Approach?

The human development paradigm focuses in all aspects of development that can contribute to build and enhance human capabilities. This enhancement may occur by either by expanding choices and opportunities that people have to lead a life that they value and have reason to value (UNDP, 2000, p. 2). As other approaches such as the capability approach and the human right approach, it considers human life as an end rather than as a means. It differs from a human rights perspective in the sense that it is concerned with people capabilities and also with their agency and voice – their ability to shape their own destinies, but less with responsibilities. Thus it can contribute to the progressive realization of human rights, and to specifying imperfect obligations as well as perfect legal obligations. So both human development and human rights are complementary, and reinforce each other.

Within the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), our work has been to support the development of a rigorous methodology and comparable evidence base on multidimensional poverty. Our most prominent multidimensional poverty index covers (MPI) 1.6 billion people in developing countries living in acute multidimensional poverty. Our index replaced UNDP’s Human Poverty Index, and the Human Development Reports have published our poverty estimations for 117 countries.

Given the extensive interest that the global MPI generated, national governments and other regions have also explored developing their own national and regional MPIs. Official national MPI statistics are now published by the governments of Mexico, Bhutan, Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Ecuador with others on the point of launching and 40 countries linked in a peer network. In addition an MPI for European countries was created as part of the NetSILC2 project for 31 EU-SILC datasets from 2006-2012, and an improved MPI will be developed and explored as part of the NetSILC3 project. Regional measures have also been developed in Latin America, and are underway in Arab states.

global poverty

What do we know from this evidence?

From the global MPI covering acute poverty in developing countries we find headlines such as:

  • 30% of the 5.2 billion people in the developing countries covered as MPI poor.
  • Two-thirds of MPI poor people live in Middle Income countries
  • Half of MPI poor people live in South Asia and nearly 30% in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The highest rate and intensity of multidimensional poverty is in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Disaggregated analysis is essential. For example, within Nigeria, less than 9% of the population are poor in Lagos whereas it is over 90% in Zamfara or Yobe. The range varies by countries.
  • Multidimensional poverty levels and trends differ from income poverty levels and trends; both are complementary and need to be reported and analysed side-by-side.
  • Multidimensional poverty appear to be more responsive to social and sectoral policies than to economic growth.

What do we need to know (evidence gaps)?

Thus far most of the research and work on multidimensional poverty has been advanced in developing countries and work in developed countries has been concentrated in academic journals rather than policy spaces. The tradition of counting-based measures in Europe, and the newer work on the EU-2020 index that includes material deprivations and quasi-joblessness, provide the opportunity to connect this fast-growing literature on multidimensional poverty with European contexts and questions. However, a key constraint is the identification of relevant indicators of non-material dimensions including education and health. For example, in the NetSILC 2 project, we found that ‘levels’ of education were not comparable across Europe, and that it was difficult to know how to interpret correctly changes in the perceptual questions such as ‘chronic health conditions.’ To bring this work to Europe requires engaging quite particularly in questions that adequately reflect the respondent’s own achievement in that index (precision at the individual level and not on average. In addition, we are exploring topics of: a) ethnic disaggregation; b) econometric methods to analyse MPI; c) evaluating impacts on multiple dimensions; and d) incorporating environmental indicators into the MPI.

Useful References:

Alkire S, Apablaza, M and Jung, E. (2014b), “Multidimensional poverty measurement for EU-SILC countries”. OPHI Research in Progress Series 36c. Oxford, University of Oxford

Alkire, S. and Deneulin, S. (2010) ‘The Human Development and Capability Approach’ in Deneulin, S. and Shahani L. (eds.) An introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach. Freedom and Agency, London: Earthscan and International Development Research Centre, pp. 22-48

Alkire, S. and Robles G. (2015). “Multidimensional Poverty Index – Summer 2015: Brief methodological note and results.” OPHI Briefing 31. University of Oxford

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2000) Human Development Report 2000: Human Rights and Human Development, New York: UNDP.

About the authors:

Dr Sabina Alkire is the Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, a research centre within the Department of International Development, University of Oxford. She is also the Oliver T. Carr Professor and Professor of Economics and International Affairs at George Washington University. Her research interests and publications include multidimensional poverty measurement and analysis, welfare economics, the capability approach, the measurement of freedoms and human development

Dr Gisela Robles Aguilar is a Research Officer at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative. Her research is focused in analyzing the extent to which participation in cash transfers is constrained by the conditionality attached to such anti-poverty programmes.


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