Eradicating global poverty: a noble goal, but how do we measure it?

Working and discussion papers
June 2013
Emma Samman, Martin Ravallion, Lant Pritchett, Stephan Klasen, Sabina Alkire, Amanda Lenhardt, Emmanuel Letouzé

The first Millennium Development Goal sought to ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger’, and its first target was to halve extreme poverty in 25 years. Progress notwithstanding – the target was met some five years ahead of schedule – some 1 in 5 people today cannot provide for their most basic needs. Amid a great deal of debate over what a post-2015 framework should encompass, there is widespread support for a continued poverty focus. The High-Level Panel’s report recommends that, ‘eradicating extreme poverty from the face of the earth by 2030’ should lie at the core of a new agreement: ‘This is something that leaders have promised time and time again throughout history. Today it can actually be done.’ The World Bank has endorsed this view, as have David Cameron, Barack Obama, and others.

This proposal rests upon a very specific understanding of extreme poverty. But is the goal ambitious enough – in terms of who it targets, and how? It is not clear that the $1.25 a day poverty line, the measure upon which this vision of a poverty-free world rests, is the best way to think about and to measure poverty, or that it is sufficient.

To address these issues, we asked several experts to make proposals as to how to measure poverty in a post-2015 agreement. Their contributions show some consensus, but also several areas of contention. There are arguments that poverty is relative as well as absolute, and over whether apt reference points are the societies in which people live or global societies. Some advocate higher international income poverty lines, arguing that they hold greater meaning in rich and poor countries alike. Others have argued that purchasing power parity adjustments may not reflect the incomes of the poor well and that national poverty lines would offer a better solution. Others have taken issue with an income-based poverty metric, arguing that poverty should be measured in a multidimensional, or disaggregated fashion, since not all experience poverty equally. 

These proposals originally appeared as a series of blogs on ODI's Development Progress website.