Image by UNU-WIDER
  • Blog
  • 11 January 2023

Martin Ravallion's contribution to poverty reduction: a tribute

Martin Ravallion, the architect of the extreme poverty line, passed away on 24 December 2022. Deborah Hardoon looks at his impact on DI’s work, and pays tribute to him

Written by Deborah Hardoon

Poverty & Inequality Lead

In a few weeks we will publish an update to our factsheet on economic poverty, where we use Martin’s method to identify people as living in poverty if their income or consumption falls below a defined threshold (the poverty line). This continues to be one of DI’s most read resources, providing an important snapshot of where people living in poverty are most likely to live and where progress has (or hasn’t) been made.

Poverty is of course complex and context specific. This simple, internationally comparable income measure provides just one piece of the puzzle, and Martin was clear on the need to delve deeper into national data, statistics and stories.

“if you really want to say something meaningful about a country, you have to use the local numbers”

And like Martin, we encourage readers to review these facts about economic poverty alongside our complementary publications on inequality and multidimensional approaches to poverty measurement. It’s this deeper context that better reflects the reality, and makes data more inclusive and meaningful to people living in diverse places around the world.

But internationally comparable poverty data (based on the economic measure for poverty developed by Martin Ravallion and his colleagues at the World Bank) continues to be used widely. And this is testament to the value of measuring complex issues using a simple metric and understandable language. Relatable and compelling numbers can put issues on the radar and be used to hold ourselves to account for changes: halving the proportion of people around the world living below the extreme poverty line was used as the flagship indicator for the Millenium Development Goals, and was achieved three years early.

It takes someone very smart, and brave, to come up with an appropriate approach to measuring something so complex and high profile as poverty. While the ‘dollar-a-day’ poverty line was a powerful advocacy tool for focusing development efforts away from general growth and towards people with the very lowest incomes, the approach, the poverty line and the data behind the statistics are not without their limitations and vocal critics. Martin was very clear and humble about these limitations. He championed the need for rigorous data and evidence across the board, and supported the use of a wider range of poverty and inequality tools and measures.

Martin was a prolific researcher who wrote hundreds of publications on a wide range of poverty-related issues and a comprehensive textbook on the economics of poverty, which I reviewed a few years ago. More recently, his work has raised the profile of inequality within households, relative poverty in rich countries and the critical role of social protection in development.

At DI, we benefited from his insight and expertise when developing our own P20 methodology, which provides a simple tool to look at poverty as relative, concentrating on the poorest 20% of people in any given population group. More than once, colleagues at DI reached out to him with questions about his work. His replies were always exceptionally prompt, transparent and kind.

The forthcoming update to our economic poverty factsheet comes at an important time: much has changed since the last update in November 2021. In 2022 the internationally comparable extreme poverty line increased from $1.90/day to $2.15, reflecting changes in prices around the world. In this latest release we can also estimate how the long tail of the Covid-19 pandemic and the compounding crises of climate and conflict are affecting headline poverty figures. But as we look at the global, national and regional trends, Martin’s passing is a reminder of the importance of understanding the individual and humanity that sits behind the statistics, as this reflection from his colleagues at the World Bank, sharing not only his professional work, but also his personal impact, so eloquently does.