Title: Measuring Poverty around the World
Author: Anthony B Atkinson
Publication: Princeton University Press
Pages: 464 pages
What is the crying need for the average well-off Indian to bother — or read — about how to “measure” poverty. After all, poverty is far too endemic in our country. The richer the city, the more poor people it seems to have. Most Indians might not even consider poverty to be an exceptional state meriting a voluminous book on it.
The late Anthony B Atkinson, the author of this book, dispenses with two key questions on the very first page of the first chapter: Why he wrote this book and why you should read it. For the former, he says that 50 years after he wrote his first book, Poverty in Britain, he “remains deeply concerned that, in countries that are many times richer than in the 1960s, poverty has become more, rather than less, entrenched. One of the main aims of the book is to highlight the lack of progress in tackling poverty and to hold our governments to account for their failure.” On the latter, he says: “The simple answer… is indeed that poverty is one of the two great challenges facing the world as a whole today, along with climate change, with whose consequences poverty is intimately connected.”
Though he died in January 2017, Atkinson remains a leading light in the economic study of how people live, whichever way one may measure it — either by poverty levels, inequality, health conditions or consumption levels. He has written several books on related topics, none better than Inequality: What can be Done? (Harvard University Press, 2015).
Atkinson started work on Measuring Poverty Around the World in October 2016, immediately after he finished the report of the Commission on Global Poverty, set up by the World Bank in 2015, which he chaired. That report, titled ‘Monitoring Global Poverty’, was published in 2017. But Atkinson, who was a fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford University, set out with an even more ambitious agenda for this book. Instead of being limited to just “extreme poverty” or other set definitions, Atkinson wrote this book “to address how one should measure poverty across the world, starting from scratch, and then discuss what the available data actually reveal.” Another unusual aspect of the book is the integration of international and national measurements of poverty. Atkinson also wanted to look at the causes of poverty across 60 countries across continents, for which he collected data.
Unfortunately, the book remained only half-finished. But even in this incomplete version, Atkinson’s work is hugely instructive. That is why a month before his death, he requested two friends and long-time collaborators John Micklewright (of University College, London) and Andrea Brandolini (of Banca d’Italia) to bring the book to publication.
The volume has 10 chapters plus two additional essays on the main threats — highlighted by Atkinson — to poverty eradication. The first five chapters are the most complete part of the book. They provide an in-depth understanding — couched in accessible language — of what it means to measure poverty, what the key definitions are and, perhaps most importantly, the role of data in measuring poverty. Chapters 6 through 9 remained largely unfinished. They look at poverty in different regions and countries of the world. Chapter 10 provides the results, but this too is largely unfinished.
The first essay by François Bourguignon explains the interrelations between economic growth, inequality and poverty, and how each of these affects the others. The second essay by Nicholas Stern examines how climate change exacerbates poverty. Both Stern and Bourguignon are former chief economists of the World Bank and these
essays lift the book’s worth, especially since the second-half of the book is largely unfinished. The first five chapters, as well as the two essays at the end, are then the strongest elements.
To be sure, by themselves, the first five chapters alone are good enough to make up a book. In a nutshell, they help readers develop an understanding of how to think about poverty. For example, Atkinson explains how and why even the basic definition of poverty is highly contested and differs across countries. Defining poverty is also a highly “political” issue. Each definition is also closely related to the data captured to arrive at an estimate.
Should one look at household consumption expenditure or household income? For that matter, should one look at household or individual data? Should one measure only the extent of poverty or also its depth? Moreover, should one only consider monetary measures or also look at non-monetary indicators such as the state of health? Should one account for multiple non-monetary variables such as health and education? Should one look at their overlap as well? How can one make comparisons across countries where people may have very different consumption patterns? Atkinson lucidly explains the various approaches and what they have to offer.
But, is the book still worth reading, since it has been published two years after the death of its author, in a field where active research is throwing up new results every few years? It is true that from the perspective of what Atkinson originally imagined, the book is incomplete. Nothing underscores this as powerfully as the blank spaces under sub-heads that Atkinson had decided upon.
The book is akin to a potentially series-defying knock that one’s favourite batsman almost played in a crucial Test match. That knock may have had the makings of the greatest-ever innings, but even though that goal was not fully realised, one still found it immensely worthwhile to watch. Reading Measuring Poverty Around the World is something like that.
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