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The challenges of measuring human development

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 4 Nov 2010 18:21 GMT
Author: Asen Fas Harvard
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The text below is the introduction to the 2010 Human Development Report, The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development, published by the United Nations Development Programme.

In 1990 public understanding of development was galvanized by the appearance of the first Human Development Report. Led by the visionary Mahbub ul Haq, it had a profound effect on the way policy-makers, public officials and the news media, as well as economists and other social scientists, view societal advancement. Rather than concentrating on only a few traditional indicators of economic progress (such as gross national product per capita), "human development" accounting proposed a systematic examination of a wealth of information about how human beings in each society live and what substantive freedoms they enjoy.

At the time Mahbub ul Haq became the pioneering leader of the human development approach, several voices of discontent were demanding an approach broader than standard economic measurements provided and were proposing constructive departures. With remarkable insight Mahbub saw the possibility of harnessing these initiatives towards the development of a capacious alternative outlook that would be at once practical and inclusive.

The Human Development Reports made room for a rich variety of information and analyses related to different aspects of human life.

The difficulty, however, of replacing a simple number like GNP with an avalanche of tables (and a large set of related analyses) is that the latter lacks the handy usability of the crude GNP. So a simple index, the Human Development Index (HDI), was devised explicitly as a rival to GNP and concentrating only on longevity, basic education and minimal income. Not surprisingly, the HDI, which proved very popular in public discussion, has a crudeness that is somewhat similar to that of the GNP. This diagnosis is not meant as an "unkind" description.

As someone who was privileged to work with Mahbub in devising the HDI, I would claim that the crude HDI did what it was expected to do: work as a simple measure like GNP but, unlike GNP, without being oblivious of everything other than incomes and commodities. However, the huge breadth of the human development approach must not be confused, as it sometimes is, with the slender limits of the HDI.

The world has moved on since 1990. There have been many gains (in literacy for example), but the human development approach is motivationally committed to concentrating on what remains undone - what demands most attention in the contemporary world - from poverty and deprivation to inequality and insecurity. New tables continue to appear in the steady stream of Human Development Reports, and new indices have been devised to supplement the HDI and enrich our evaluation.

As it happens, the new challenges we face have also intensified - for example, those surrounding the conservation of our environment and the sustainability of our well-being and substantive freedoms.

The human development approach is flexible enough to take note of the future prospects of human lives on the planet, including the prospects of those features of the world that we value, whether related to our own welfare or not (for example, we can be committed to the survival of threatened animal species on grounds that transcend our own well-being).

It would be a great mistake to cram more and more considerations into one number like the HDI, but the human development approach is sophisticated enough to accommodate new concerns and considerations of future prospects (including forecasts

of future levels of the HDI) without muddled attempts at injecting more and more into one aggregate measure.

Twenty years after the appearance of the first Human Development Report, there is much to celebrate in what has been achieved. But we also have to be alive to ways of improving the assessment of old adversities and of recognizing - and responding to - new threats that endanger human well-being and freedom. That continuing commitment is indeed a part of the large vision of Mahbub ul Haq. The need for that commitment has not diminished over time.

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