Lifting the lid on the household: A new way to measure individual deprivation

April 23, 2015 9 By Duncan Green

Guest post on an important new initiative from Scott Wisor, Joanne Crawford, Sharon Bessell and Janet Hunt

You don’t have to look far to find assertions that up to 70% of the world’s poor are women ‑ despite Duncan’s efforts to show

But how to measure it?

But how to measure it?


that the claim cannot be substantiated.

Just last month, ONE launched a new campaign called “Poverty is Sexist”, drawing on star power to bring attention to the issue of women’s poverty.

ONE didn’t use the 70% stat, but implied that poverty is feminized. Yet the reality is that it is still not possible to say whether women are disproportionately poor ‑ despite widespread calls for better sex-disaggregated statistics.

Why? Because both monetary measures of poverty such as the International Poverty Line and multidimensional measures such as the Multidimensional Poverty Index continue to use the household as the unit of analysis. This assumes that everyone in a given household is equally poor or not poor – and that’s a big problem.

Not to mention concerns about the gendered differences in the experience of poverty. How do you price the value of being free from violence or securely accessing family planning?

These are not small problems. A great deal hangs on how we measure social progress. Are development programs working? Do anti-poverty policies make a difference? Is foreign aid alleviating poverty? Evaluating households makes it impossible to see how different members of the household are doing. And failing to assess dimensions of life that are particularly important to poor women, or men, limits our ability to show whether and how their poverty differs.

So what to do? Well, despite heated debates about measuring global poverty, something of a consensus has emerged. Most experts now agree that monetary poverty measurement should be complemented by multidimensional measurements. The individual, not the household, should be the unit of analysis. Poverty measurement should reflect the views and priorities of poor people. And in so far as possible, measurement should provide meaningful comparisons across contexts and over time.

Seeing the individuals inside households matters

Seeing the individuals inside households matters

Enter the Individual Deprivation Measure. Five years ago, an international, interdisciplinary team led by the Australian National University set out to develop a genuinely gender-sensitive poverty measure. Working with poor women and men in Angola, Fiji, Indonesia, Malawi, Mozambique and the Philippines, we aimed to build from participants’ views to an internationally comparable measure of deprivation. We sought to bridge the gap between existing global measures determined without input from poor women and men, and highly localised poverty assessments that cannot be generalised.

In the first phase of participatory research, local research teams worked with poor men and women to determine how they conceived of poverty and hardship and how deprivation should be measured. In the second phase of research, participants told us which of the most commonly identified dimensions from Phase One were most important in determining whether a life was free from poverty and hardship.

From these findings, we constructed the Individual Deprivation Measure (IDM) and tested it in a nationally representative survey of 1800 people in the Philippines.

The IDM assesses the circumstances of individuals across 15 key dimensions of life. Within each dimension, the IDM IDM 2measures how deprived someone is on a 1 to 5 interval scale where 1 represents the most deprived (such as no improved water source, more than 30 minutes from home) and 5 represents a lack of deprivation (such as an improved water source in the home). So it tells us more about how difficult life is than existing monetary measures, which count whether a person is above or below a set line (say, $2 a day), and multidimensional poverty measures, which count whether a person falls below or above the threshold in a given dimension.

Poor women and men told us some deprivations were more significant than others, and weighting is used to reflect this. Within each dimension, we give greater weight to more severe deprivations (having no source of clean water counts for more than having one you can walk to). Across the dimensions, the 5 dimensions poor men and women ranked as most important for getting out of poverty are given more weight than the second five, and the second five more than the last 5. Weighting always creates debate, and there are certainly alternative methods of setting participatory weights. Importantly, our approach reflects participants’ views that improvement in your circumstances is more important the worse off you are, and some dimensions are more important than others.

How poor you are matters

How poor you are matters

An individual’s weighted score in each dimension is added up to give an overall IDM score. When we do this for all adult members of a household, we can evaluate how poverty varies based on gender, age, ethnicity or race, geographic location, or whether you live with disability.  This enables tracking of horizontal inequalities.  The IDM can also provide a gender equity measure more relevant to poor people than existing approaches, by calculating the gap between men’s and women’s achievements, overall or in particular dimensions, within a household or across the population.

There is still work to do in developing the IDM. But it is already a manifest improvement on current monetary and multidimensional measures, reflected in the strong interest at a recent side event at the Commission on the Status of Women.  We expect interest to accelerate as results demonstrate what the IDM can reveal. Data from a national study of poverty in Fiji using the IDM will be available later this year, a proposal in Romania is pending decision and proponents in Costa Rica are seeking funding. The IDM has been adapted by the Ethical Research Institute for a multidimensional poverty study in Israel (results in Hebrew only now but English is coming). And a number of INGOs are interested in the IDM for baselines.

To know if no one is being left behind, we need to measure the poverty of individuals. The IDM makes this possible. The question now is whether governments and NGOs will get on with making poverty measurement reflect the true breadth, depth, and distribution of deprivation.

Acknowledgements: The research underpinning the IDM was led by the Australian National University and funded by the Australian Research Council (LP0989385), with significant additional support from International Women’s Development Agency, Oxfam Great Britain (Southern Africa), Oxfam America, Philippine Health and Social Science Association, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Oslo University.   Huge thanks to local research teams and participants.

An edited version of this post also appears on the Guardian website