GCRF: Developing an Environmentally-adjusted Index for Multidimensional Poverty

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Geography


The intersection of poverty and environment policies that is the focus of the Sustainable Development Goals provides an important opportunity for the use of secondary data. Whilst both areas have been intensively individually studied, most if not all globally accepted poverty indicators have ignored the role of the natural environment.

ESRC funded research programmes such as ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation) have furthermore highlighted that much of the ecosystem services literature in low and middle income countries has been primarily concerned with the role of ecosystems as an instrument for getting food, energy or better living standards (i.e. ecosystem's provisioning services). However, there is growing recognition that being able to engage with the natural environment in a meaningful way (culturally, spiritually) and the ability to withstand shocks and reduce vulnerability through access to nature are intrinsically valuable, in addition to the generally accepted provisioning services. These dimensions of human dependence on nature are so-called 'functionings' in the Capabilities Approach, developed by Amartya Sen (1999), and allow people to live a 'good life'. This approach forms the theoretical basis of the well known Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), officially used by over 100 countries to identify the poor. The MPI provides rigorous statistics on poverty incidence and intensity, and includes dimensions related to health, education and living standards. It is therefore a strong instrument to support the SDG agenda, which pays particular attention to the inclusion of environmental factors. Operationalisation of a post-2015 global MPI that allows cross-country comparison in relation to the SDGs depends on the availability of adequate and appropriate secondary data on environment and poverty. This proposal aims to develop such a measure.

Using secondary data from Brazil (see details justifying this focus in the Case for Support), we propose to develop and test the possibility of developing an environmentally-adjusted MPI that can help measure progress towards the achievement of the post-2015 SDG agenda. We will compare the environmentally-adjusted MPI statistics to existing MPI statistics to understand the patterns of incidence and experience of poverty and wellbeing, as measured by these alternative indicators. For instance, poverty may be the same if people identified as being poor under the current MPI are the same as those unable to deal with risks of natural hazards and climate change, and unable to access and engage meaningfully with the natural environment.

Secondly, there is a need to understand whether the observed improvement in GDP and income (in Brazil) are reflected in the more broadly defined environmentally-adjusted MPI. Therefore, we will look into the trends in the different MPI dimensions over time and space. We will aim to evaluate national level poverty-alleviation strategies in Brazil, such as the Bolsa Familia programme of Brazil's Fome Zero programme, to evaluate if the focus of these policies (in terms of the choice of targeted interventions and choice of beneficiaries) can explain the observed trends in both the existing MPI and an environmentally-adjusted measure.
Building on the detailed analysis of the Brazilian case, we propose to use our strong existing research and collaborative networks in Nepal to test this measure in a contrasting ODA-eligible context. For globally comparative analyses, it is important for the measures that emerge from this project to be applicable in diverse contexts. Data availability, research capacity and the context for implementation all matter, and are very different in Nepal relative to Brazil. By collaboratively exploring the different needs and challenges of an environmentally-adjusted MPI measure in Nepal with key research and impact partners, we will investigate the potential for such a globally comparable measure.

Planned Impact

By using existing data, the project will develop new insights that will help decision-makers and other stakeholders (intermediary research users) to act in ways that alleviate poverty, also through sustainable ecosystem management. Impact activities will focus on key areas of global policy, primarily the SDGs, and national level strategies for mainstreaming environment into development plans in Brazil and Nepal specifically, with relevance and application to other ODA-target countries.

There are clear links at international levels that the project will feed directly into: the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda; science-policy initiatives by the UN Agencies such as Green Economy Initiative and the Poverty Environment Initiatives by the UN Environment Programme and the UN Development Programme; the work of major bilateral agencies (such as DFID) and multilateral organisations (such as the World Bank, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations).

Impact activities will focus on key areas of global policy, primarily the SDGs, and national level strategies for mainstreaming environment into development plans in ODA-target countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Uncertainties associated with this type of impact activity will be addressed through effective research communication to get results into the public domain. The innovative work of this grant can lead eventually to the regularization of multidimensional poverty-environment statistics supporting the eradication of poverty in all its forms.

Who will benefit? The key non-academic target groups for maximising the environmental, social and economic impact of this research are: (i) Decision-makers in national governments and international agencies; (ii) Statisticians, civil servants and technical officials working in National Statistics Bureaus, the UN Statistical Commission, and government special advisors planning the implementation of data gathering and management under the SDGs; (iii) Senior officials and thought leaders in government and intergovernmental donor agencies and development and environment institutions, including NGOs; (iv) agencies advancing the Sustainable Development Goals and the post-2015 development agenda leading to the achievement of the 2030 vision; (v) development and environmental practitioners and early adopters in NGOs and civil society groups including people's movements; and, (vi) journalists, commentators and bloggers.

Outputs: The project's vision for impact is based around creating a demand for its knowledge products by direct dialogue and engagement, and embedding the research process into the priorities of potential user groups. The specific outputs, then, will respond to demands from impact stakeholders, and will include: (i) a policy brief which will synthesise the analysis undertaken by the project, targeted at practitioners, civil society and the media; (ii) workshops in Brazil and Nepal to discuss the suitability and applicability of the newly developed poverty indicator for the SDG process; and (iii) a peer-reviewed paper, written for an academic audience, available on open access, with the potential to influence future research agendas, funding as well as the work of donor agencies.

The University of Cambridge has dedicated resources devoted to impact activity, with which the PI is closely associated (ESRC Impact Acceleration Account; Centre for Science and Policy). UNEP WCMC plays a key role in international policy processes in relation to environment and development, as well as providing policy advice and guidance to national governments in relation to the SDGs and the CBD. IIS in Rio, and SIAS in Kathmandu, are partners that are at the heart of science-policy engagement and impact activities in their respective national contexts, and these networks will be actively engaged during and beyond the lifetime of this project.


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