Sustainable rural development needs a roadmap

by Thomas Rath, IFAD | IFAD
Tuesday, 1 April 2014 20:00 GMT

Heavy monsoon rains create large water bodies, which are an important resource for local fisher communities. Here Bangladeshi women are sorting and drying fish to later sell at the market. IFAD/GMB Akash

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A new, free tool for assessing rural poverty aims to help chart the way forward

All roads to sustainable development lead to rural areas, where the vast majority of the world's poorest people live. The debate on the post-2015 development agenda offers a unique opportunity to re-focus our attention on these areas – investing in rural infrastructure, education and markets as a first step towards eradicating poverty, improving economies and establishing food security for all.

But the road to healthy, vibrant and sustainable rural communities will be a long and complex one. Having a map will be vital if we are to stay the course.

As the United Nations' specialised agency for rural development, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) continuously faces the question of how best to "map" rural poverty and measure the impact of our work. To get a clearer picture, IFAD has developed the Multidimensional Poverty Assessment Tool (MPAT).

This tool is designed to help development practitioners understand some of the primary dimensions of rural poverty, which otherwise can be difficult to assess and measure. To do so, it uses a collection of 10 composite indices, each of which aggregates data from diverse indicators.

In more basic terms, MPAT takes a snapshot of rural poverty – at a specific place and point in time – by collecting people's perceptions and opinions about core issues, such as housing, food security and empowerment. The information is then summarised, using the MPAT indices, to produce a picture of the situation in a given household, village or project. This snapshot can then guide MPAT users in determining where to direct additional support.

In Bangladesh, for example, MPAT was applied in an IFAD-supported project in Sunamganj, an area that is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Due to heavy monsoon rains, large parts of the area remain flooded for more than six months during the year, forcing people to live under cramped conditions and heavily limiting communities’ access to clean water, proper housing and income opportunities for women.

More extreme weather events further increased the vulnerability of women and men living in Sunamganj. The project aimed to reduce poverty in these communities through a combination of different activities, such as infrastructure development and community building. With two years left in implementation, the project needed to analyse the impact of its interventions and chose MPAT as one of the tools to do so.

Using MPAT, IFAD project staff could easily see how their activities affected the domestic water supply, education, housing, gender and social equality, among others. And by including villages that did not participate in the project, they were able to compare and attribute changes in rural poverty to the project activities. The information helped them adjust their work plan, and contributed to new projects in the area.


By pointing to areas where support is most needed, and by measuring the impact of initiatives undertaken to improve rural lives and livelihoods, MPAT can enhance development interventions. Its crosscutting methodology creates a sort of “rural poverty dashboard” covering food and nutrition security, domestic water supply, health and health care, sanitation and hygiene, housing, clothing and energy, education, farm assets and non-farm assets, exposure and resilience to shocks, and gender and social equality.

MPAT is based on a bottom-up, participatory approach reflecting the voices and perspectives of rural people themselves. The tool uses household and village-level surveys to collect data, averaging and organising the results in a clear, standardised fashion. In the process, it not only measures the various dimensions of rural poverty but also offers insight into its underlying causes.

By mapping dimensions related to human well-being and rural livelihoods, and highlighting areas that require support, MPAT provides a solid starting point for reducing rural poverty. And in doing so, it provides an objective means for rural development projects to make decisions on resource allocation. In addition, it can be used at multiple points during the life of a project, from baseline poverty studies needed to design a project all the way to impact assessments conducted after completion.

Moreover, MPAT is universal enough to be relevant to most rural contexts around the world, yet specific enough to provide useful data for local poverty alleviation efforts. It is also designed to be user-friendly and easily implemented by local-level project staff.


At IFAD, we are committed to an inclusive, dynamic and sustainable transformation of rural areas that contributes to the overall development of a country. MPAT is an important tool for success in this endeavour. In fact, we believe that it can be useful beyond our own work, which is why MPAT resources will be available free of charge on the IFAD website as of April 3 for anyone working in rural development.

Aid organisations and research centres have already used the beta version of the tool. For example, the NGO Nuru International is using MPAT for project monitoring and planning in Kenya, and the Indian Institute of Technology based a research project in Sikkim, India, on MPAT analysis.

Of course, if we are to achieve a rural future that is free of poverty and hunger, then no single tool or individual organisation can work in isolation and there is no one universally appropriate metric. However, we hope and believe that this new resource will bring us one step closer to the future we want, in 2015 and beyond.

Thomas Rath is country programme manager in the East and Southern Africa Division of IFAD and the project leader for MPAT development.

Follow the MPAT launch on April 3 at 3 pm Rome time on and send your comments and questions through twitter @ifadnews, #ifadmpat