Addressing poverty: Towards empowered Sri Lankan households


2020 has been a profoundly challenging year for Sri Lanka and the world at large with the COVID-19 pandemic causing an unprecedented crisis, so much so that for the very first time since UNDP established the concept of the Human Development Index in 1990, global human development is on track to decline this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted education, disrupted livelihoods and has caused instability in socio-economic conditions of populations at large, proving to have unleashed far-reaching and both short- and long-term impacts on all sectors of our societies and economies. Rising levels of poverty and widening inequalities are amongst concerns for Sri Lanka as well. As the country recovers from this crisis while looking ahead to achieving the SDGs, a holistic and multidimensional approach, beyond the traditional monetary measurement of poverty, will help to better understand the drivers and actions necessary to address poverty in all its forms.

According to the 2020 global report on the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) entitled ‘Charting pathways out of multidimensional poverty: Achieving the SDG’s’, 4.1% of the population in Sri Lanka live below the National poverty line, with 14.3% vulnerable to multidimensional poverty.

Multidimensional poverty, assessed in the global reportjointly produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), examines poverty beyond income deprivations and identifies multiple deprivations at the household and individual level in health, education and standard of living.

To generate a conversation around the MPI tool, as the designated technical lead within the UN system on socio-economic recovery, UNDP with the OPHI, launched the global MPI report in Sri Lanka recently, in collaboration with the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Ceremoniously receiving the first copy at the virtual launch in Sri Lanka, Hon. Shehan Semasinghe, State Minister of Samurdhi, Household Economy, Micro Finance, Self-Employment, Business Development and Underutilized State Resources Development stated, “Our policies and interventions can be underpinned using data and evidence presented in the 2020 global report on the Multidimensional Poverty Index. This is key to ensuring that Sri Lanka addresses the COVID-19 socio-economic impacts in a way that leaps forward towards the aspirations of our national policy framework and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

The report states that across 107 development countries, 1.3 billion are multidimensionally poor, and this number could increase given COVID-19 repercussions. With just 10 years left to achieve the vision of the Sustainable development agenda, the MPI can be a powerful tool to formulate data driven policies that could help the recovery of countries.

Speaking at the event, Mr. Robert Juhkam, Resident Representative of UNDP Sri Lanka stated, “There is no better time than now to introduce a multidimensional approach to poverty in Sri Lanka. It provides a much more nuanced picture of poverty, how it manifests itself in people’s lives and how intensely it is experienced, going beyond income measures. Together we can design a future that looks beyond recovery, towards 2030”.

The Director General of the Department of Census and Statistics, Dr. Indu Bandara further stated, “The global MPI compliments the traditional measures of poverty and goes beyond income deprivations to identify multiple deprivations at the household and individual level – an important tool to eliminate poverty in all forms”.

In his closing remarks, Mr. Tim Sutton, Representative, UNICEF Sri Lanka stated, “UNICEF is proud to have been supporting for over two years the Department of Census and Statistics to develop a National and a Child MPI. Through this journey, statisticians were trained, roundtables conducted, a special child module included in the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2019, and the first National Conference on Child Poverty held. With the next HIES report Sri Lanka will publish, for the first time ever, a national multidimensional poverty measure, including on child poverty.”

UNICEF and UNDP in Sri Lanka will continue to support the Government of Sri Lanka and DCS to introduce this Index to Sri Lanka, with technical assistance from the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative.

The launch was followed by a panel discussion as a part of UNDP’s Colombo Development Dialogues series, and was moderated by Mr. Raashid Riza, Policy and Engagement Analyst, UNDP in Sri Lanka on ‘Understanding vulnerabilities: addressing poverty, towards empowered Sri Lankan households’. The panel comprised of Dr. Indu Bandara, Director General of the Department of Census and Statistics; Dr. Sabina Alkire, Director of Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative; Ms. Louise Moreira Daniels, Chief of Social Policy at UNICEF; and Mr. Kulasabanathan Romeshun, Senior Research Professional, Centre for Poverty Analysis.

Speaking on the global partnership between OPHI and UNDP in producing the MPI, Sabina Alkire, Director of OPHI at the University of Oxford concluded that, “The MPI’s compact evidence – with its information on both the level and composition of poverty – provides the data needed to pinpoint how and where poverty manifests itself, enabling policy makers to know how – and where – to target resources and interventions.”

The ongoing pandemic will likely create additional pressures on vulnerable and marginalized groups. Addressing each challenge requires a different approach, many of which need to go beyond improving income, to “build forward better” post-COVID-19.

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