Martin Ravallion, former director of the Research Department of the World Bank and Edmond D. Villani Professor of Economics at Georgetown University, passed away on Christmas Eve 2022. Here, Judith Randel and Tony German of Public Good recall his huge influence on development research and the politics of poverty and inequality.
Dollar a day poverty became, for many people in the development sector, both a benchmark and a powerful sound bite to engage politicians and the public with the issue of ending absolute poverty, in line with the Millennium Development Goals and the SDGs.
But Martin Ravallion’s contribution to ending poverty and reducing inequality goes far beyond his authorship of the dollar a day idea. His influence on how progress in the fight against poverty should be measured combined economics, data and statistics with moral philosophy. His findings are accessible to campaigners, but at the same time, even the briefest of glances at Ravallion’s papers shows why few political analysts or commentators would want to challenge his econometric analyses.
In 2012, he published Benchmarking Global Poverty Reduction, which estimated poverty numbers over the forthcoming decade. Whilst this ambitious scenario assumed no global crises such as COVID-19, the conclusion that absolute poverty could be reduced to 3% of the World's population by 2022, clearly re-asserted the value of measurable progress to the end of poverty.
This changed the discourse, away from the idea that the poor are always with us, to the realistic possibility of eradicating poverty. And if it is possible to eradicate poverty, then it becomes a political choice – a question of priorities - whether you do so or not. The analysis provided the intellectual ballast for the ambition of the SDGs.
Another of Ravallion’s key themes was his research focus on the consumption floor – the lowest observed continuous level of consumption - a critical concept for anyone interested in reaching the Furthest Behind First. See for example, Lifting the Floor, one of many papers on the relationship between poverty and inequality.
It is clear that SDG1, ending poverty, cannot be attained if the poorest are left behind. But to put this differently, if we don’t ensure that the consumption floor is rising, it is a mathematical certainty that the gap between the poorest and everyone else will continue to widen. The poorest will be left behind, which is inconsistent with SDG 10.1 commitment to faster than average income growth for the poorest.
Ravallion pointed out that “The most widely used poverty measure, the ‘headcount index’ attaches no value to success in raising the lowest level of living”. Despite the well-known challenges in getting data on both the poorest and the richest members of any society, he argued that “Success in assuring that ‘no-one is left behind’ can be monitored from existing data sources”. He concluded that “the bulk of the developing world’s progress against poverty has been in reducing the number of people living close to the consumption floor, rather than raising the level of that floor. In this sense, it can be said that the poorest have indeed been left behind”.
Martin Ravallion’s legacy is of a body of work on poverty, inequality, the consumption floor and social safety nets. For the future, it offers a rich resource to support organisations working to deliver Ireland’s Agenda 2030 commitment to reach the furthest behind first.
Judith Randel and Tony German are Directors of Ideas and Action for Public Good - an organisation established in Ireland to support the imperative to Leave no one Behind and delivery of the SDGs.