A new lens on poverty: Why community stories matter

July 10, 2024
A man speaks with a woman carrying a child on her back

To understand poverty in different countries and contexts, we must listen to the people who are experiencing it.

UNDP photo

Middle School certificate. Solid floor. Mobile phone. Doctor’s visit. Electric heater. 

If you miss one, you might be disadvantaged. But what does it mean to be poor? 

Multidimensional poverty encompasses different barriers, issues and adversities that people face in their daily lives. These intersect and overlap, making narrow definitions of poverty, such as focusing on income only, unable to capture the reality of poverty in people’s lives.

Step into Kuntaur Wharf Town in The Gambia.
“The reason we are very poor is because our rice fields are spoilt, and we don’t have a place now for rice cultivation. We also have excessive groundwater here; if you try to dig a toilet here by 3 meters deep you will see the water coming out, and that’s a big problem we are facing." - ‘Mariama’ (name changed)


Persistent agricultural challenges, water and sanitation issues, inadequate housing conditions, and the effects of climate change are the greatest obstacles to improving lives in Mariama's community.

For her, a poor person lacks many things:

“A poor person’s characteristic is not having all the basic things in your house. Not being able to have all your 12 months' feeding. Being unable to send the children to school for education, not being able to bear the school expenses like school bags, uniforms, and so on.” 

By talking with Mariama, we are able to understand what it means to be poor in her life and her community. Why is this important?

Graphic of a small black wallet

How we define poverty influences how we measure it.

Measuring poverty requires data, which then influences the decision-making based on the findings. Timely, quality and disaggregated data is essential for effective policy-making and lifting people out of poverty.

UNDP uses two indexes, the Human Development Index (HDI) and the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) by UNDP and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) track development and well-being. Both measure three dimensions: health, education and the standard of living.

The MPI focuses on the deprivations that people experience in poverty: not only how many people are poor, but how they are poor. However, not all countries have data available from all regions and sectors, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.

To understand poverty in different countries, regions and communities, we need to ask the people who are experiencing it.

According to the global MPI, 534 million of the 1.1 billion poor people live in sub-Saharan Africa in 2023.

UNDP is working to improve our understanding of poverty in local communities in Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone by introducing participatory/qualitative approaches to data collection and doing so at the lowest localities which are often overlooked. A new way to measure poverty at the communal and household levels is being developed, called the Local, Integrated Multidimensional Poverty Index. Going beyond the traditional methodologies in collecting data about poverty provides insights that might not have been apparent from a purely statistical or academic perspective. 

men sitting and talking

UNDP Economic Specialist Stanley Kamara (right) leads preparations for a local MPI discussion in Liberia.

Photo: UNDP Liberia

The people interviewed by UNDP, government officials, and trained field staff represented all parts of the communities: health workers, agricultural workers, community leaders such as town and clan chiefs, heads of cooperatives, women and youth groups, and families. The team collected data from 11,000 households across Liberia, and another 7,000 in Burkina Faso.  

Collecting data in a way that is inclusive, respectful, and aligned with local customs and traditions ensures that the data represents the people’s realities. This also means creating safe spaces where people can speak freely and truthfully.

“Given that this was farming season, and many members of households may not come to the meetings or may be uncomfortable speaking in the group, a household-level survey was done to capture the silent voices and the peculiarities of the households, something that is not possible in a huge community meeting.” - Stanley Kamara, Economic Specialist at UNDP Liberia

A townhall discussion in Liberia aimed to create a safe space for people to speak openly about poverty.

Photo: UNDP Liberia

The surveys in Burkina Faso and the preliminary results were co-created and validated together with the communities. Revisits and observatory research complemented the surveys to enable a full picture of what it means to be poor.

Efforts in The Gambia and Sierra Leone are underway. By making data collection deeply contextualized and customized for the local contexts, UNDP is pushing the frontiers of our understanding of poverty and its measurement.

Graphic showing a pile of fruits and vegetables

More inclusive Multidimensional Poverty Indexes have ripple effects.

In 2023, UNDP worked with the Center for Economic Reforms and Research, OPHI, and UNICEF to develop Uzbekistan’s first national MPI, which tailored the global MPI methodology to the national context.

Uzbekistan is a lower-middle-income country with over 36 million people. Even though poverty in the country was reducing significantly, the COVID-19 pandemic drove more people back into poverty.

people in front of computer

UNDP worked with partners to develop Uzbekistan's first national Multidimensional Poverty Index in 2023.

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

The pilot MPI found out that around 18.4 percent of adults are multidimensionally poor. 

Before publication, the national MPI was tested and examined by the local research community.

Svetlana Rajabova was one of them. She works as a research assistant at the University of Westminster—Tashkent Campus. Specializing in Development Economics, she attended a workshop on the national MPI, where she could delve deeper into measuring multidimensional poverty. The experience inspired her in her own research as well.

“We got inspiration to use the data from the pilot MPI. We are developing a paper focusing on child poverty. We use the MPI data to measure the depth and severity of child poverty in the 12 regions of Uzbekistan.”
woman receiving certificate

Research assistant Svetlana Rajabova (left) took part in a workshop during which members of the Uzbek research community tested and examined the national MPI.

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

Svetlana’s team is using four dimensions to measure child poverty. In addition to the health, education and living standards, which are part of the MPI indicators, they are also measuring child development. This includes the parental care indicator which tells about children’s well-being. She believes that the financial literacy of parents ins one of the factors that can ensure children escape multidimensional poverty. 

“We believe that this study will make a base for evidence-based decision-making in Uzbekistan and ensure a better future for children.”
Graphic showing a rolled up diploma

Going beyond data needs a community.

When MPIs are developed through a diverse range of partnerships, including government agencies, non-profits, academia, community-based organizations, and development partners, everyone’s relative strengths can be leveraged.

The new information generated through the local and national MPIs can be a powerful tool for evidence-based policymaking at all levels.

“This index complements the monetary poverty indices that we used to produce and allows for the direct measurement of deprivations individuals face across multiple dimensions. This index will not only provide the number of poor individuals but also, and more importantly, understand how they are poor.” - Bernard Bere, Deputy Director General, National Institute of Statistics and Demographics, Burkina Faso

Together, supported by better data, stakeholders can do more:

  • Local communities, including marginalized groups, can have a voice in the decision-making process and advocate for their rights and interests.
  • Community leaders and development actors can tailor interventions to address the specific needs and priorities identified by the MPIs.
  • Policymakers can prioritize areas for investment and development, allocate resources more efficiently, and monitor progress toward poverty reduction targets, including the Sustainable Development Goals.
“Our hope is that the MPI will serve as a barometer of the real change within the country over the next seven years.” - Obid Khakimov, Director of the Center for Economic Research and Reforms of Uzbekistan (CERR), during his speech at a high-level conference during the UN General Assembly in September 2023

Uzbekistan now aims to reduce the poverty rate by 7 percent by 2030. The data gathered through the MPI will be used to report on the Sustainable Development Goals and will actively shape Uzbekistan’s poverty policy.

Graphic of a stethoscope

Lifting people out of poverty is not enough.

Many countries are still working to reduce the poverty increases caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the Strategic Plan for 2022-2025, UNDP aims to help 100 million people escape multidimensional poverty.

Involving people affected by poverty matters. Mariama knows the grievances in her community. Agricultural practices, access to healthcare, and infrastructure all need fixing. Women need financial support and loans to run their gardens and small businesses.

Making our data on poverty more inclusive helps lift people out of poverty. But we should not stop there. We need to ensure that they are also resilient to future shocks, whether related to climate, pandemics, or other factors. Building resilient people and communities keeps people out of poverty.

The Funding Windows are UNDP’s flexible multi-donor pooled funding mechanism. The Poverty and Inequality Window, through which the mentioned projects were funded, is supported by Luxembourg.