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A debate on multidimensional poverty indices

Gabriel Demombynes's picture

At Duncan Green’s blog, there is a fascinating back-and-forth on the UN’s new Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) between its co-creator, Sabina Alkire, and the World Bank’s Martin Ravallion. This is very much a live debate in development circles. The MPI is a descendant of the earlier Human Development Index and is similar to the various Unsatisfied Basic Needs indices long used in many countries.

I agree wholeheartedly with Martin’s critique, but Sabina does offer a spirited (and highly hyperlinked) defense. Martin’s emphasizes two points: 1) what’s the point of aggregating a bunch of indicators into a single index? and 2) the choice of weights for such an index is inherently problematic.

Varieties of African successes

Shanta Devarajan's picture

Tolstoy notwithstanding, the 20 African success stories described in the booklet “Yes, Africa Can” show that success comes in many different forms.  Broadly speaking, the cases fall into three categories:

- Success from removing an existing, major distortion.  The best example is Ghana’s cocoa sector, which was destroyed by the hyperinflation and overvalued exchange rate in the early 1980s.  When the exchange rate regime was liberalized and the economy stabilized, cocoa exports boomed (and continue to grow).  Similar examples include Rwanda’s coffee sector and Kenya’s fertilizer use.  Africa’s mobile phone revolution, too, is an example of the government’s stepping out of the way—in this case by deregulating the telecommunications sector—and letting the private sector jump in. 

Raising the Volume on 'Quiet Corruption'

Shanta Devarajan's picture

 
Photo: Arne Hoel

In Uganda, teachers in public primary schools are absent 27 percent of the time. In Chad, less than one percent of the non-wage recurrent expenditures reaches primary health clinics.  In West Africa, about half the fertilizer is diluted before it reaches the farmer. 

More cell phones than toilets

Shanta Devarajan's picture

An article in yesterday’s New York Times observes that, with the number of mobile subscriptions exceeding five billion, more people today have access to a cell phone than to a clean toilet.  Leaving aside the relative value of these two appliances, the surge in cell phones in Africa—some 94 percent of urban Africans are near a GSM signal—is transforming the continent.  Farmers in Niger use cell phones to find out which market is giving the best price; people in Kenya pay their bills and send money home using M-Pesa.

Lumps of coal or a boost to development?

Shanta Devarajan's picture

Driving at night in Cameroon some years ago, I saw schoolchildren sitting under the streetlights doing their homework—because they had no electricity at home.  Today 560 million Africans live without access to electricity.  No country in the world has advanced economically without adequate power supply.

Electricity is essential not just to power factories and offices, but to ensure that milk and drugs are transported safely, and that kids—especially those in rural areas who don’t even have streetlights—get an education.

Economics and science meet in early childhood development

Shanta Devarajan's picture

Economists are skeptical bunch, but they seem convinced of the value of interventions in early childhood (0-6 years) and, conversely, the multiple, long-term and often irreversible effects of the failure to provide infants with nutrition, health care and stimulation. 

For instance, Norbert Schady and Chris Paxson’s found that whereas at age 3 all children (from a sample in Ecuador) had the same vocabulary score, by age 6, children from the poorest quartile scored 50 percent of those from the richest quartile.

Meanwhile, scientists studying the development of the human brain (and body) are reaching the same conclusion. 

In a fascinating presentation, Jack Shonkoff describes the process of brain development that is interrupted, sometimes permanently, by adversity in early childhood.  Overproduction of hormones associated with stress can leave toxic effects. 

He also shows how human contact (as opposed to contact with inanimate objects or no contact) can significantly improve a child’s cognitive development.  A group of pre-schoolers were exposed to a nanny who spoke to them in Chinese for a few hours a week; in a couple of years the children were speaking fluent Chinese.  Another group was exposed to a high-quality video in Chinese, but they didn’t develop any speaking ability in the language.

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