This article examines how the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) redefined their idea of development over the two decades from 1990, no longer presenting it as only a matter of economic progress but instead focusing more on the problem of poverty and its reduction. This change of definition was closely associated with changes in the preferred measurement of development, from average income (based on national income accounting) to the proportion of the population holding certain characteristics of what it meant to live in poverty (instantiated in various index number formulations). Measurements of development thus became direct measures of socioeconomic difference, not just between nations, but also within nations. This change was designed to create numbers that would be effective in capturing and communicating those differences in ways usable for both policy and public purposes. Those numbers thus provided a resource for fighting poverty reduction—though the UNDP had few powers to hold governments to account.

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