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Basic rights and Equality

People at risk of social exclusion: new global estimates

5 min


Borja López-Noval and Miguel Niño-Zarazúa

While there are many measures of the extent of global poverty, assessments of the prevalence of social exclusion – a related but distinct concept – are not widely available. This column presents the first global estimates of people at risk of being excluded because of identity, circumstances, or socio-economic background. Nearly a third of the world’s population faces such risk. That is, for each poor individual, measured in either multidimensional or monetary terms, there are two to three who risk being excluded. This implies that anti-poverty policies are likely to overlook around 1.5 billion people who despite not being defined as poor, are at risk of exclusion.

There are multiple estimates of global monetary and multidimensional poverty, but populations at risk of social exclusion still lack a worldwide estimate. Poverty and social exclusion are intimately related, of course, but they are not the same. For example, people living in an affluent city may be excluded because of their identity or perceived position in that society, without being materially poor. The socially excluded typically suffer from stigma, segregation, joblessness, and poverty. The poor might still have jobs, be part of safety nets, and not necessarily be stigmatized.

While poverty usually refers to material deprivation, social exclusion refers to individuals and groups being actively prevented from participating fully in society. Social exclusion involves the denial of resources, rights, goods, and services, as well as the inability to participate in the normal economic, social, political, and cultural relationships and activities available to the majority of people in a society.

The concept of social exclusion and its multiple manifestations and drivers have long been analyzed. Scholars from multiple disciplines have emphasized exclusion as a consequence of lack of employment opportunities and access to social benefits, of the divergence between identity, and norms and customs, or of failed functionings and capabilities.

Research on social exclusion broadly agrees that it is a dynamic, multidimensional, and relational phenomenon: that exclusion factors can change overtime, that exclusion has multiple manifestations and roots, and that it requires an excluding agent and someone who is excluded.

Despite these shared foundations, social exclusion has not converged on a consensus definition, nor a common measure to be used by practitioners, policy-makers, and researchers. For example, the indicator of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion officially adopted by Eurostat in 2021 is not followed outside Europe.

Combining or confusing poverty and exclusion is not only intellectually problematic: it also limits the ability of both international and national institutions to monitor progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to honor political commitments to leave no-one behind, and to design effective programs of social development and social protection.

To address the measurement gap around social exclusion, we have estimated the share and number of populations at risk of exclusion globally and regionally. Our analysis develops a macro counting measure of population groups that are particularly vulnerable to exclusion based on identity (such as being a child, a person with disability, or a member of the LGBTI community), circumstances (such as being a victim of gender-based violence or experiencing forced migration), and socio-economic conditions (living in poverty).

We estimate the shares of individuals within highly vulnerable populations to be at risk of exclusion per country, impute information gaps based on regional or global peer averages, and avoid double-counting across categories of vulnerable population groups.

Overall, we find that about 2.33 billion people – or just under a third of the global population – are at risk of exclusion. This number is notably larger than global estimates of monetary poverty at the $1.90 (2011 PPP) international poverty line and the World Bank’s multidimensional poverty headcounts.

It is also moderately larger than those in poverty using the $3.20 (2011 PPP) international poverty line poverty rates, the global multidimensional poverty headcounts, and the global incidence of ‘societal poverty’ as defined by the World Bank. Only the global poverty headcount using a $5.50 (2011 PPP) international poverty line exceeds the share of population at risk of exclusion (see Figures 1 and 2).

Note: IPL: international poverty line; MDPI: multidimensional poverty index; GMPI: global multidimensional poverty index; SPL: societal poverty line; SAR: South Asia region; EAP: East Asia and Pacific; SSA: sub-Saharan Africa; LAC: Latin America and the Caribbean; ECA: Europe and Central Asia; MENA: Middle East and North Africa; NA: North America.

Source: Authors’ estimates

Vulnerability to exclusion is most widespread in absolute terms in South Asia, and East Asia and Pacific (see Figure 2), where 1.3 billion people are at risk of exclusion. This constitutes 53% of the worldwide total, a share that rises to 76% if sub-Saharan Africa (with 552 million at risk of exclusion) is considered. India and China combined comprise 840 million people or 36% of all those at risk of exclusion worldwide, which is not surprising given their population sizes.

Incidence is highest in sub-Saharan Africa, where over 52% of people are at risk of exclusion. This is three times the rate observed in Europe and Central Asia (with 162 million at risk of exclusion or 18% of their population). Perhaps surprisingly, a fifth of people in North America – Canada and the United States – are at risk of exclusion, exceeding rates in Europe and Central Asia.

There are significant differences in factors of exclusion within world regions. For example, while the prevalence of gender-based violence is present across the board, it is particularly acute in South Asia, and East Asia and Pacific.

Furthermore, the largest shares of indigenous populations at risk of exclusion are in Latin America and the Caribbean, South Asia, and East Asia and Pacific; while religious minorities are vulnerable to exclusion in South Asia, East Asia and Pacific, and Europe and Central Asia.

Finally, the share of at-risk populations in fragile, conflict-affected, and violent situations worldwide is close to 50%.

These estimates suggest that interventions targeted at alleviating or ending the most extreme forms of poverty may need to be complemented with other policies focusing on the non-poor who are nevertheless at risk of exclusion. Globally, this gap is substantial in magnitude: about one-fifth of the world’s population, or almost 1.5 billion people.

Thus, addressing exclusion effectively requires multiple interventions, differing between groups and sustained over time. Drivers of social exclusion – such as discriminatory laws, social norms, weak institutions, and recurrent crises – may be familiar to all excluded groups. But exclusion due to gender-based violence or forced displacement requires a package of interventions that might not be effective in tackling exclusion due to long-term unemployment, or lack of access to health or financial services.


Borja López-Noval
Universidad de Cantabria
Miguel Niño-Zarazúa
Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow, UNU-WIDER