Multidimensional poverty and COVID-19

Understanding the different facets of poverty will help us build forward better, with equity

The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that poverty isn’t just about income. Within and across countries, poor and marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic in terms of infection rates, economic losses and access to vaccines and other health care imperatives.

Understanding the multidimensional nature of poverty can help us design a more resilient recovery that leaves no one behind. And the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) gives us a critical tool to measure and monitor poverty in all its forms.

“This year's Multidimensional Poverty Index reminds us of the need for a complete picture of how people are being affected by poverty, who they are and where they live, if we are to build forward better from this crisis and design effective responses that leave no one behind.“
– Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator

For the first time, the 2021 Index examines the correlations between poverty and ethnicity and race, caste and gender. The results: just like with pandemic’s fallout, ethnicity, caste and gender have an outsize impact on people’s likelihood of experiencing multidimensional poverty.

But first, the overall picture: around 1.3 billion people in developing countries live in multidimensional poverty, according to the 2021 MPI published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative. Roughly half of the multidimensionally poor (644 million people) are younger than 18 years, and 8.2 percent (105 million) are 60 or older.

Poverty dimensions

Red cross




Yellow heart

Standard of living

To arrive at these figures, the MPI looks beyond income to understand how people experience poverty in various, overlapping ways. It identifies how people are being left behind in health, education and standard of living, interrogating 10 indicators such as lack of improved drinking water, adequate nutrition or at least six years of schooling. People who are deprived in at least a third of these weighted indicators are classified as multidimensionally poor. The 2021 index includes data on 109 countries, home to 5.9 billion people or about 92 percent of the developing world’s population.

Red cross Health indicators


788 million multidimensionally poor people live in a household with at least one undernourished person.

Silvia, Honduras

The last time he weighed five kilos, now he weighs six.

Child mortality

The death of a child under 18 years old in the five-year period preceding the survey is one of the two health indicators.

Bitola, India

After vaccinating, we create a tally sheet and from there we enter the details on the device.

Pencil Education indicators

Years of schooling

635 million multidimensionally poor people live in households in which no member has completed at least six years of schooling.

Amina, Libya

It feels great being with my friends again. The people and this place mean a lot to me.

School attendance

481 million multidimensionally poor people live with an out-of-school child.

Zena, Iraq

I want other young girls like me in Iraq to start studying again. Education will help us build a future.

Heart Standard of living indicators

Cooking fuel

1 billion multidimensionally poor people are exposed to solid cooking fuels.

Nelly, Peru

I now believe we can do many things.


1 billion multidimensionally poor people lack access to adequate sanitation facilities.

Norbu Zangmo, Bhutan

Sanitation and hygiene conditions have vastly improved and since we no longer need to spend many hours fetching water, we can spend more time earning income.

Drinking water

568 million multidimensionally poor people lack improved drinking water within a 30-minute roundtrip walk.

Aculina, Moldova

When I saw tap water in my household, I cried.


678 million multidimensionally poor people lack electricity.

Iman, Yemen

The high cost of diesel-generated power has deprived many poor families of electricity access. But now, the solar power plant provides affordable energy for 43 households so far.


1 billion multidimensionally poor people live in substandard housing.

Cecília, Mozambique

The important thing for me was that the place was safe, and we would have our own space, where we could stay.


550 million multidimensionally poor people lack at least seven of eight key assets (radio, television, telephone, computer, animal cart, bicycle, motorbike or refrigerator) or do not have a car.

Atem Peter, South Sudan

Not affording a radio should not be a barrier to getting informed.

Where are the multidimensionally poor?

Multidimensional poverty is found in all developing regions of the world, but it is particularly significant in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where nearly 85 percent of all multidimensionally poor people live.

In sub-Saharan Africa, some 556 million people (53 percent of the population) live in multidimensional poverty. In South Asia, 532 million people (29 percent of the population) are multidimensionally poor.

The countries with the most people living in multidimensional poverty are India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

1.3 billion people live in multidimensional poverty


In addition to the geographic distribution, the report reveals a significant difference between urban and rural areas as well as according to age. Some 84 percent of the multidimensionally poor are rural. Globally, there are 1.1 billion people living in multidimensional poverty in rural areas and 209 million in urban settings.

Urban vs. Rural

16% of multidimensionally poor live in urban areas.
84% of multidimensionally poor live in rural areas.

Nearly half of those living in multidimensional poverty—644 million—are children.

The numbers are staggering: one in three children is multidimensionally poor, compared to one in six adults. Poverty hits children more starkly than adults—they are more likely to be deprived in all 10 of the indicators.

Adults vs. Children

Adults: 1 in 6 adults is multidimensionally poor
Children: 1 in 3 children is multidimensionally poor

Multidimensional poverty and the pandemic

While the 2021 MPI is based on data from before COVID-19 struck, it incorporates data collected through phone interviews during the pandemic. The analysis reveals that multidimensionally poor people have suffered the most from COVID-19, at the same time as the pandemic threatens to roll back progress and push more people into multidimensionally poverty.

“High multidimensional poverty appears to be, on average, amplifying the adverse pandemic-related shocks in education and employment and limiting the space for emergency protection programmes.”
– 2021 MPI report

As an example, the pandemic has kept millions of children out of school all around the world. But disruptions to education are more prevalent in countries with higher rates of multidimensional poverty, even if they have lower infection rates.

The outsize impact of ethnicity, caste and gender

To advance the 2030 Agenda pledge to leave no one behind, this year’s MPI report presents data disaggregated along the lines of ethnicity or race, by caste and by gender. The results reveal disparities that must be addressed by policies to ensure fair and inclusive development.

In countries where data is available, ethnic minorities, Indigenous peoples and lower castes have higher levels of multidimensional poverty. This holds true even when the numbers are controlled against subnational regional variations and rural and urban disparities.

  • In Viet Nam, ethnic minorities make up one sixth of the population but nearly half of those in multidimensional poverty.
  • In Bolivia, Indigenous people account for about 44 percent of the population but 75 percent of multidimensionally poor people.
  • In India, five out of six multidimensionally poor people are from lower tribes or castes.
  • Nearly two thirds of multidimensionally poor people live in households in which no girl or woman has completed at least six years of schooling.

Building forward better, with equity

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that we are falling short on our commitment to leave no one behind. How we respond can either exacerbate inequalities or set us on a path to a more just world. The 2021 MPI offers insights that can help policymakers address gaps through evidence-based actions that put the most vulnerable people at the heart of recovery planning.

“Even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens development progress, it presents a window of opportunity to build forward better.”
– 2021 MPI report