Country Development Indices: Necessary or Negative?

Worldmap-hdi2004
A map showing countries characterized by the Human Development Index (HDI)

“Development” is one of those terms that can be, on one hand, easily identified as objective, yet, on the other hand, identified as heavily subjective. This largely depends on where you are from on planet Earth and what form of socialization and societal norms you were exposed to. Today, terms such as “Developed”, “Developing”, “Third-World”, and “Impoverished” are used frequently, even somewhat ‘loosely’ thrown to and fro. These terms are not only used to describe individuals or groups but they are frequently used to describe entire nations and even regions of nations (sometimes an entire continent). Hemispheres are even attributed specific titles, with the simple mentioning of “the West” and “the East”, as such titles should (and usually do) spark a graphic in one’s head of the living standards, culture and ideologies. Development Indices were even created to categorize countries. Such categories, today, are playing a huge role in global perceptions towards certain countries, regions and people groups. Therefore, one can ask the question, “are these Indices necessary or is there a negative aspect to them?”.

The Human Development Index 

Picture showing how the HDI is calculated (picture courtesy slideshare.net)

The Human Development Index is a composite statistic that was devised in 1990 under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) by Pakistani economist Mahbud ul Haq, along with a team of world renowned economists, which had also included Nobel Prize Laureate Amartya Sen.Its purpose was “to shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to people-centered policies”. It was one of the first, and probably most successful, attempts at categorizing people by measuring their level of education, happiness, comfort, etc which are all qualitative factors, transforming them into quantifiable factors. The index was designed to look at life expectancy, income per capita, and education, along with also considering fertility and mortality rate and inflation rate. It was discovered that the most “developed” countries in the world were the countries of the Scandinavian regions, such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark, along with other Western European countries, Australia, Canada and the United States. Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea were the main notable positions from the Asian continent. In 2010 the Human Development Report, put forward by the UNDP, proposed and later implemented the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI). This index was designed to be a more precise measurement of human development, attempting to measure the factor of inequality, particularly in the areas of health, education and income. The UNDP then decided to combine both the HDI and IHDI to form a final IHDI figure. Here, they would calculate the HDI for a country and label it as “the potential development index that could be achieved if there is no inequality”. Then the IHDI would be calculated. Finally, the difference between the two figures would be calculated and the result would be the final IHDI reading for the country, which is measured as a percentage. The lower the percentage, the least amount of inequality would be occurring in that country. Scandinavian countries once again topped this list, having losses as low as 6 and 7%. On the other hand, North and Central African countries recorded percentages of near to and over 40%. The country ranks basically remained unchanged for both indices.

The Positives and Negatives

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (photo courtesy BBC)

One major positive that has occurred as a result of the HDI AND IHDI’s implementation has been encouraging greater efforts towards recognizing human qualitative factors, comfort, education and longevity as factors of development, instead of just economic wealth. Many of the world’s wealthiest countries and the economic superpowers are seen as just average players in HDI and IHDI standings when compared to other countries. As a result, it has helped in opening talks and the passing of legislation on various issues and industries in different countries globally. This has boosted movements for universal education access at different learning levels in many countries. Education and Health reforms have taken place to somewhat boost the imagery set out by a particular country. It has also improved the world’s view on Scandinavian societies, with the globe attributing to them an almost “perfect outlook”, labeling them as the “ideal societies”. These indices have also encouraged reforms to be made among Developing nations, as it helped to bring an imagery of much needed development not just to those countries but to the world in relation to those countries. This is where things can and have gotten a bit tricky when dealing with development indices.

The HDI and IHDI are indices that were designed by the world’s leading authorities on economics and human development. Furthermore, it was given the stamp of approval by the United Nations Development Program itself. This meant that the data and even the calculations that were proposed, presented and done were expected to be trusted and therefore seen as the truth; after all the sources were deemed credible. In 1990, Amartya Sen, who originally worked on the HDI, was initially against developing the index but was later on convinced by ul Haq and the UNDP that it will work and it possible. His original concern was simple and understandable; “is it really possible to capture the complexity of human characteristics into one index?”. Many would say that the HDI AND IHDI have proven that this is possible, but others would question this assumption. Both indices consider Fertility, Education, GDP per capita and Health as its main measuring factors. These factors are important and are usually the first and main indicators presented by countries when looking at their overall well-being. However, there are other things to consider, even when looking at these already scrutinized factors.

Map showing countries shaded by their rank in the Happy Planet Index (2006). The Green areas are the top performers followed by the lighter green, lighter yellow, darker yellow and brown areas

In July 2006 the New Economics Foundation (NEF) designed “the Happy Planet Index” as a competing index to the Gross Domestic Produce (GDP) and the HDI and IHDI. It measures, as the name suggests, how “happy” a country is. Specifically, it looks at the ability of a country to bring about increased development among its people while achieving a high level of sustainability, particularly on the environment, thus decreasing the country’s ecological footprint. Since its implementation, Latin American, Caribbean, Southern African and South-East Asian countries have topped the list, followed by a few of the top performers in HDI and IDHI rankings. This means that many of these countries are achieving progress in health, education, economic increases and control of fertility rates without much impact being made on the environment itself. This index, remarkably, takes into account environmental sustainability, which is a factor the HDI and IHDI omit. The less tarnished and human-affected the environment is could play a huge role on human development. HDI on the other hand depends heavily on technological and monetary advancements. This means that for a country to increase on an HDI or IHDI scale, it would have to invest a large amount of money. This then could also lead to economic instability which means that for a country to do this it must have a strong economic foundation or backup source in the first place. This means that many developing and “third word” nations would remain in such categories as they would continually not have enough resources to boost themselves on the indices. Also, the HDI and IHDI indices might not necessarily take into account the ease of a country to hide and/or change its data, since the statistics are dependent on obtained data from governments and organizations. Although this is also the case with the Happy Planet Index , the Happy Planet Index involves making environmental observations, which could include sample taking and more personal observations. For example, much more valid data can be obtained by observing the effects of deforestation on a certain people group in the highlands of Costa Rica (which is number one on the Happy Planet Index) than depending on fertility rate figures from Scandinavian governments. Its not to say that countries may lie, but many indices do no have mechanisms in place for dealing with data that could potentially be erroneous.

(Picture courtesy BPTourism)

The main issue with indices is that they are mechanisms put in place to measure human development, something that is, as was already admitted, very hard to measure. There are many aspects of human development and the human nature that even humans still have not grasped. As a result, figures attributed to countries can present stereotypical outlooks that might not necessarily reflect reality. Indices, for example, might not consider historical factors and how present administrations are working towards alleviating past mistakes using vary feeble or limited resources. This can be the case with many Central African nations that have had extremely tumultuous pasts and are still plagued with issues, some way beyond their control. Issuing development indices to their situation might just only help solidify already negative outlooks on them by the global society. As a result, many African nations are not seen as popular tourist destinations, and are sometimes seen as only impoverished places where church organizations and missionary groups have to frequently visit to “assist the poor”. Many Caribbean islands also might not receive high recommendations on indices as they are extremely limited in terms of resources, particularly the islands of the lesser Antilles. Nations such as St Vincent and the Grenadines and St Kitts and Nevis are recently working towards the implementation of Geothermal energy to combat energy issues and meet demands for their small populations.

The La Soufriere volcano on the island of St Vincent, St Vincent and the Grenadines. The potential of the volcano would be tapped into with the onset of the island-nation’s Geothermal energy project (photo courtesy repeatingislands.com)

These issues of human development would stem beyond the use of indices and would dive into areas such as general human well-being and the cause for inequalities around the world. One may wonder at many countries who report having stances in development indices themselves having huge problems of inequality, most notably the United States and its recent resurgence of race-energized conflicts, particularly between many members of law enforcement units and the African American community. Indices are currently not designed to handle such angles. Yet, all these angles must be considered when looking at human development as a whole. These Indices do have the benefits and can be deemed necessary, but their benefits and level of necessity might not always be as wide spread as they were probably intended to be.

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