Who are the poor and How are they poor?

October 21, 2020

Unpacking Malaysia's New Povery Line Income and Multidimensional Poverty Index findings

The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2020 Report, themed ‘Charting pathways out of multidimensional poverty: Achieving the SDGs’ was released on the 16th of July, 2020. This came days after the release of 2019’s Household Income Survey Report by Department of Statistics #Malaysia and the announcement regarding revision of the national poverty line income (PLI) to RM2,208 from RM980, after 15 years. A webinar was organised by UNDP Malaysia on 23 September 2020 to unpack Malaysia's new poverty line income and present this year's #MultidimensionalPovertyIndex.

In a webinar organised by UNDP Malaysia on the 23rd of September,  Mr. Niloy Banerjee, Resident Representative UNDP Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei in his welcoming address lauded the government's move to revise the Poverty Line Income as an interesting conceptual leap for the county, and a politically courageous act because number of headcount poverty rates will subsequently rise in numbers overnight. 

Speakers and panelists at the event agreed that measuring poverty should go beyond income indicators to include qualitative factors that reflects actual complexities of poor people’s lives. Non-income poverty can be assessed via measures of education and health attainments, standard of living and in today's context, levels of digital connectivity. Dato’ Sri Mustapa Mohamed, Minister (Economics) in Prime Minister’s Department highlighted in his officiating message that the government has begun to adopt a more holistic approach to measuring poverty via the introduction of relative poverty and multidimensional poverty index (MPI) during the mid-term review of the 11th Malaysian Plan. 

The event saw the launch of the Global 2020 Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) report, which is published by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative at the University of Oxford and the Human Development Report Office of the UNDP.  Dr. Haniza Khalid, Senior Development Economist UNDP accentuated the success and strides developing countries around the world were making in reducing multi-dimensional poverty. However, COVID-19 has jeopardized progress in human development in the first time in thirty years. Substantial impacts on multidimensional poverty are anticipated through two indicators MOST affected by the pandemic— nutrition and children’s school attendance. A simulation exercise done on 70 developing countries showed that the social and economic fallout from COVID-19 may set poverty level by 9.1 years.

Dato’ Sri Uzir Mahidin, Chief Statistician Malaysia emphasized that measurement of poverty is an important endevour and that a sound statistical system can be instrumental for the government and stakeholders. Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr. Norma Mansor of Universiti Malaya added that the pandemic revealed gaps in how poverty is measured particularly in exposing the extent of digital divide in Malaysia. Overnight, access to the internet became an important lifeline during the pandemic threatening to deepen the divide for those unable to get online. Other deprivations that could be taken in to account include access to transportation and access to basic amenities. She cautioned that providing the infrastructure that delivers basic amenities to the people must remain a core strategy for development, and the government has still has work to do in certain regions and aspects. Professor Datuk Dr. Denison Jayasooria of the Malaysian SDG CSO Alliance concurred that multidimensional poverty is the way forward in understanding poverty, but need to have a deeper engagements with various stakeholders on what are the right indicators to be included in the measurement. For instance, poverty in urban areas were some of the most difficult to capture or recognize and is starkly different from poverty in rural areas. 

Addressing the poverty challenge requires a multi-dimensional approach, which involves going beyond improving income. This philosophy is in line with UNDP’s corpus of work advocating governments and societies everywhere to take the opportunity to rethink their development pathways and “build back better” post-COVID.