Milestone: Turning a multidimensional poverty index into a forward-looking dynamic tool

Measurement is at the heart of policy design and understanding, says Dr Pali Lehohla. Photo: pixabay

Measurement is at the heart of policy design and understanding, says Dr Pali Lehohla. Photo: pixabay

Published Mar 18, 2024


If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. This is the challenge that South Africa faces in as far as addressing many of its challenges. This is especially true where poverty is concerned.

However, to its credit South Africa has sophisticated measurement tools and measurement outcomes across the spectrum. It certainly is not a case of not being able to measure it because measurement is not a national problem. It exists in abundance in South Africa.

But why is it that we can measure it, yet we cannot manage it? This points to a different deficit, one of the capacity to understand, to address and respond appropriately. Measurement is at the heart of policy design and understanding. This is a sine qua non.

Without a science policy, such matters are left to their own devices. The question is what maxim governs and fits South Africa’s paradox of abundance of measurement, and dwarf-like and inappropriate policy responses and actions.

Understanding and indulging in policy design is a technical process in the service of ensuring that the political economy is in the service of society. Unemployment, poverty and inequality as a policy outcome are a choice. They are a consequence of policy design.

Where the tools of design do not anchor the three challenges as outcomes, it is highly improbable that they ever will be addressed. In many model designs, especially those that are orthodox, outcomes such as poverty, inequality, including unemployment, are only incidental and are addressed through a case studies lens and not as integral aspects to the model.

Little wonder why the red Treasury book does not ever publish these indicators in the array of policy outcomes, which include gross domestic product and inflation outcomes for the medium term. As a consequence, poverty, inequality and unemployment are left to the devices of the poor to address.

The organisation Applied Development Research Solutions (ADRS), in conjunction with the Economic Modelling Academy (EMA), located at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), will present a breakthrough study on turning a multidimensional poverty index into a forward-looking dynamic tool. This will be held at GIBS from 10am on March 20.

History behind study

When I was the Statistician-General, three initiatives inspired three breakthrough ideas in my mind. The first was a two-decade long idea of how statisticians get initiated into geography.

A question I asked Professor Hermanus Geyer on my first meeting with him at the University of Potchefstroom in 1993. The idea matured when, in 2010, Statistics South Africa created the Centre for Regional and Urban Innovation and Statistical Exploration (CRUISE) and funded Geyer as the chair of the centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

The second was how the idea of a Multidimensional Poverty Index that Professor Sabina Alkire, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) at Oxford University, could deploy, could work not only as a static but a dynamic, forward-looking tool.

The third was my almost five-year engagement with Dr Asghar Adelzadeh on how the extensive econometric modelling tools he developed at ADRS can embed the Multidimensional Poverty Index as a dynamic tool.

I intersected with these three institutions while I was in office. I invited these colleagues on separate occasions to Stellenbosch CRUISE ISIbalo annual seminars, where we ruminated about the intersection of geography, econometric modelling and addressing multidimensional poverty.

A groundbreaking thesis by StatsSA staff, who were released on sabbatical to interrogate the subject, would present and reveal new pathways. But these efforts did not convince the principals of the three institutions to converge and act on the interdisciplinary nature of the ecosystem.

Upon retirement seven years ago, I was appointed as a Research Associate at Oxford University and as a research consultant to OPHI.

Alkire invited me to deliver an address at Oxford University on the theme of locating multidimensional poverty as a forward-looking tool in planning.(

My intersection of over three years, post my retirement, with ADRS’s Adelzadeh, culminated in the establishment of the Economic Modelling Academy at GIBS. (

I encouraged him to consider how the Multidimensional Poverty Index could be embedded in the ADRS models to unify these into powerful tools that can directly influence policy. He ultimately agreed and started working on the project.

The ADRS models have ten models that are now the basis for training at the Economic Modelling Academy. These include Introduction to Macroeconomics &, Economic Modelling, Poverty and Inequality and Multidimensional Poverty as a forward looking and dynamic tool, Skills Demand and Supply, Green Economy Modelling, Multi Sector Economic Modelling, Modelling provincial, district and municipal economies, and Modelling Social Security and public works.

South Africa suffers three triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. This model-based breakthrough serves as a crucial tool of foresight that should undergird sound policy making on a major and stubborn challenge that has blighted South Africa since colonialism and apartheid. This has continued unabated in post-apartheid South Africa. This breakthrough perhaps will unlock the policy gridlock.

Adelzadeh will be presenting the model, while Miriam Babita, an ex-Statistics South Africa poverty expert will be a discussant. Risenga Maluleke, the Statistician-General of South Africa, who provides the data in abundance for policy, will chair the proceedings. The guest speaker will be the Premier of Gauteng, who will respond on the question of what should be done.

Dr Pali Lehohla is a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.