Children in a slum area in Palembang, Indonesia, where poverty has increased because of Covid-19
Children in a slum area in Palembang, Indonesia, where poverty has increased because of Covid-19 © Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

We have become accustomed to reiterating the disruptions that the Covid-19 pandemic has imposed on our lives — such as decreased movement, cessation of normal social relationships, domestic violence, financial duress, mental health issues, and rising poverty and inequality. 

Our simulations, run a year ago, found that 131m to 547m people, globally, may have joined the ranks of the “newly impoverished”, potentially rolling back years of progress. As we look towards the future, if the subject of poverty arises, we may wish to look away. 

But what if that were not the case? What if strategic action by Global Britain nudged the trajectory?

In December 2013, the UK led the international response when Ebola struck Sierra Leone — working alongside partners to end the outbreak swiftly, while training medical workers and supporting early recovery in health, education, and social protection. The worst-case scenario was averted and, in March 2016, Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free. 

131m-547m People ‘newly impoverished’ by the pandemic, based on simulatons run by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative

The poverty impacts of that Ebola response then became visible in 2020, when our team’s research — funded by the UK’s then Department for International Development — showed trends in multidimensional poverty reduction. We found that, during the Ebola pandemic and response, multidimensional poverty rates in Sierra Leone fell from 74 per cent to 58 per cent — the fastest reduction for any country. Between 2013 and 2017, the dreaded burden of poverty did not rise; it fell, sharply. 

More recently, the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2020 report showed that, prior to the Covid pandemic, 65 out of 75 countries studied — accounting for 5bn people — had achieved a significant reduction in acute multidimensional poverty. This is defined as households experiencing multiple deprivations, such as undernutrition, child mortality, lack of schooling, inadequate sanitation, unsafe water, no electricity, ramshackle housing, and so on. 

A medical worker feeds a child diagnosed with Ebola virus, in Kailahun, Sierra Leone
A medical worker feeds a child diagnosed with Ebola virus, in Kailahun, Sierra Leone © Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images

So, even as we approach 18 months of the current Covid-19 pandemic, and it seems daunting to countenance poverty-reduction on a scale similar to Sierra Leone’s, it may be possible.

As the pandemic has rolled out and evolved, country after country has pivoted to invest in social protection, health systems, job creation, and economic stimulus measures to build back better. This year, the UK also has a leading voice at the G7, G20, COP26, Global Education, and Food Systems and Nutrition for Growth summits.

What if it used that voice to consolidate a new paradigm, based on cutting edge research and data, and created a new legacy of deft humility and understated collaboration? 

Based on the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) — established with UK support and covering 5.9bn people — there are clear points for action that might make this year a turning point towards ending acute poverty in all its forms:

  1. Put Britain’s voice and energy behind an integrated, not fractured, agenda. The most cost-effective responses to multidimensional poverty are multisectoral, not siloed. What if Britain used all the 2021 encounters to advocate a joined-up, high-impact strategy for addressing the disadvantages that, as Indian economist Amartya Sen put it, “batter and diminish” poor people’s lives. Rather than having independent strategies for education, food, or nutrition, could there be a frugal, consistent, regularly measured set of core goals? Goals in which cutting poverty according to the $1.90-a-day poverty line measure and the global multidimensional poverty index are prominent? Pre-pandemic, 47 countries were on track to cut multidimensional poverty by half or more between 2015 and 2030 — it can be done.

  2. Focus on children. According to the global MPI, 1.3bn people are multidimensionally poor. Of these, half are children — under 18. One in three children in 100+ countries in developing regions is multidimensionally poor, in comparison with one in six adults. Using the global MPI data, we can identify the gender of these children. We know the composition of their poverty, the size of their household, and whether all children in their age cohort are deprived or not. This evidence could inform a high-impact strategy.

  3. Recognise the protagonists. Poverty could seem daunting if its redress was all “up to” governments. But, as Sen reminds us, poor persons are not passive victims of cunning development strategies. Rather, participatory studies consulting those who have moved out of poverty find that, in over three-quarters of the cases, they cite their own initiative as the most significant driver of change. Recognising the steely determination, creativity, and insights of the protagonists of poverty — poor people and their communities — changes the nature of the task. 

  4. Back South Asia as well as sub-Saharan Africa. More than 84 per cent of multidimensionally poor people live in South Asia (530m) and sub-Saharan Africa (558m). In the most recent period, South Asian countries also reduced MPI the fastest of any region. India saw 270m people leave multidimensional poverty in the decade to 2015/16. In Bangladesh, it was 19m in just five years, 2014-19. Commending and continuing these trajectories is vital. 

We have the data and we know the framework for a strategy to meet global poverty reduction goals. That strategy requires international co-operation, shared commitment and global leadership. The pandemic need not reverse the great progress that has been made in recent decades in overcoming poverty. On the contrary, it could be a driver, a wake-up call, the basis for a new determination to build a better world for today’s children and tomorrow’s generations. This 2021 year of summits, and the UK’s key global role, offers the platform to seize that opportunity as a central part of the Global Britain vision.

Sabina Alkire

Sabina Alkire directs the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford

Read her full essay on the Unicef website, here

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