Navigating Vulnerability: Insights from Sri Lanka's Multidimensional Vulnerability Index

Co-authored by Azusa Kubota, (Resident Representative, UNDP Sri Lanka) and Dr. Sabina Alkire (Director, OPHI)

September 3, 2023

‘Understanding Multidimensional Vulnerabilities: Impact on People of Sri Lanka’ policy report

UNDP Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, 55.7 percent of the population grapples with multidimensional vulnerability. Translating to over half of the population, that is a staggering 12.3 million individuals out of the 22.2 million population are deprived in at least three out of the twelve indicators that span the critical dimensions of education, health, disaster, and living standards.

The 1st of September marked the launch of Sri Lanka’s first Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI), encompassing twelve indicators in these three dimensions. The MVI serves to complement Sri Lanka's National Multidimensional Poverty Index (NMPI), providing a holistic perspective on vulnerabilities within our society. The launch is timely, as the country is undertaking a series of reform programmes to recover from successive crises experienced in the recent past and build resilience against future shocks.

The report titled ‘Understanding Multidimensional Vulnerabilities: Impact on People of Sri Lanka’ unveils the findings of the MVI which draws from 2022-3 National Citizen Survey covering 25,000 households. The policy report is a collaborative effort between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), University of Oxford, with technical guidance from the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) Sri Lanka.

The objective of this joint endeavor is to shed light on the intricate landscape of vulnerabilities experienced by the people of Sri Lanka, particularly in the wake of the socio-economic challenges. The unique timing of the 2022-3 Citizen Survey offered valuable insights into vulnerabilities after the pandemic and considering the ongoing economic challenges.

Debt status, disaster preparedness, piped water source and years of schooling have emerged as the primary driving forces behind Sri Lanka's MVI. The resounding impact of debt is undeniable, with over one-third of the population experiencing vulnerability due to debt, including essential needs financed through debt and the pawning of valuables.

Almost half of our population (48.8 percent) are both vulnerable and lack disaster preparedness, making this another crucial concern. With climate risks escalating, this poses significant challenges.

Both male and female years of schooling are key contributors to vulnerability: many households lack any male and/or any female who has completed Ordinary Levels (OL).

A significant 35.6 percent of our population are vulnerable and lack water piped into their dwelling. This stark fact underscores the necessity to ensure equitable and widespread access to safe water.

The call to action is clear. Over 10 million rural residents are caught in the web of multidimensional vulnerability, most acutely felt in the Eastern, North, and North Central provinces. This discrepancy emphasizes a significant reality – rural communities bear a disproportionately heavier burden of vulnerability, calling for targeted and locality-specific strategies that address the core drivers - indebtedness, disaster resilience, and water accessibility. Also, given the sudden and acute nature of falling into the cycle of deprivations in some households, the social protection schemes must be augmented with livelihood and skills development support with a view to ensuring an eventual graduation of the beneficiaries from the social protection scheme.

Some districts face even graver challenges, with over 65 percent of their populations vulnerable. However, in every district, a substantial portion, not less than 40 percent, is multidimensional vulnerability. Sri Lanka is currently confronted with pervasive multidimensional vulnerability that goes beyond regional demarcations.

Households that include Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) demonstrate a significantly higher vulnerability with 60.4 percent being vulnerable compared to 54.4 percent among households without PwDs. These findings show the substantial impact that disability has on overall vulnerability.

The results call for comprehensive policy measures and robust social protection systems, particularly encouraging livelihood options for PwDs and their families. By instituting inclusive policies and strong support mechanisms, we pave the way for greater equity and inclusivity within our society.

The MVI builds on other evidence that should inform policy such as the national Multidimensional Poverty Index MPI which is an official permanent statistic of DCS. Both the MPI and MVI underscore the importance of water and of education, for example. The MVI alone adds information on indebtedness and disaster – and has more recent data - while the MPI has further information on health and living standards, plus a linked child MPI. A transformative step forward involves implementing a comprehensive evidence-based policy coherence framework that transcends a single sector or institution and facilitates cohesive collaboration among different levels of government.

Likewise, it is recommended that a sustainable approach is adopted to alleviate vulnerabilities among debt-burdened households involving a thorough assessment of formal and informal credit markets. Additionally, enhancing climate disaster preparedness entails investing in early warning systems, adaptable farming techniques, climate-risk informed planning and budgeting and strengthened oversight to foster resilience in the face of climate-induced challenges.

Considering the potential of the MVI to act as a catalytic tool for evaluating and responding to vulnerabilities across diverse dimensions, it becomes crucial to review the indicators used in its construction before final adoption. This practice ensures that an updated MVI will be relevant and effective in capturing the evolving landscape of vulnerabilities.

These recommendations are not exhaustive, but rather intended to generate discussion and thought leadership concerning Sri Lanka's numerous vulnerabilities. Furthermore, policymakers are encouraged to use insights from the National MPI into their interpretation of MVI data in order to identify synergies between the two indices and effectively address both vulnerability and poverty. The goal is for MVI and MPI insights to drive adaptive policy and programmatic responses, ensuring inclusivity and leaving no one behind on the path to human-centered sustainable development.

As we navigate this complex and fast-evolving terrain, we must remember that our efforts today lay the foundation for a more secure and inclusive tomorrow.

To access the full report, log onto: 

OpEd Co-Authored by UNDP RR and Director OPHI

Azusa Kubota, Resident Representative, UNDP in Sri Lanka and Dr. Sabina Alkire, Director, OPHI

About the authors:

Azusa Kubota, Resident Representative, UNDP in Sri Lanka 
Azusa Kubota joined UNDP in Sri Lanka as the Resident Representative in January 2023. Prior to her appointment in Sri Lanka, Ms. Kubota served as the Resident Representative for UNDP in Bhutan from 2019-2022 where she led UNDP’s COVID pandemic response.. She has served UNDP in multiple leadership capacities over the years as the Manager and Head of Office of UNDP in the Solomon Islands and the UN Joint Presence Manager (2016 – 2019); Deputy Resident Representativefor UNDP Lao PDR (2014 – 2016) and UNDP Maldives (2011-2014). She led UNDP’s independent country programme and thematic evaluations in multiple countries across regions, while working for UNDP’s independent evaluation office from 2008 to 2011. Her career with UNDP began as the Programme Analyst- Sustainable Economic Empowerment Unit, UNDP Malawi in 2002, after working for the International Law Institute in Washington DC.  
A national of Japan, Ms. Kubota holds a Master’s Degree in International Affairs in Economic and Political Development from the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York, USA; and a Bachelor’s Degree from Smith College, Northampton, USA. She has spent a semester at Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, Dakar, Senegal.

Dr. Sabina Alkire, Director, OPHI
Sabina Alkire is the Professor of Poverty and Human Development and directs the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) at the University of Oxford. Previously, she worked at the George Washington University, Harvard University, the Human Security Commission, and the World Bank. She has a DPhil in Economics from the University of Oxford.

Together with Professor James Foster, Sabina developed the Alkire-Foster (AF) method for measuring multidimensional poverty, a flexible technique that can incorporate different dimensions, or aspects of poverty, to create measures tailored to each context. With colleagues at OPHI this has been applied and implemented empirically to produce a Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). The MPI offers a tool to identify who is poor by considering the range of deprivations they suffer. It is used to report a headline figure of poverty (the MPI), which can be unpacked to provide a detailed information platform for policy design showing how people are poor nationally, and how they are poor by areas, groups, and by each indicator.