Measuring Global Development

Assess the usefulness of the Human Development Index and other indicators you have learnt that are used to measure development globally. 

Development refers to change, progress and growth over time and can occur at different scales, from global to regional and to national. Development is a widely contested subject and there lacks a consensus on what development means. However, various indicators have been created in order to measure and gauge development on a global scale and these indicators provide us with a clearer idea on what development entails, the level of development globally, as well as inform policy makers on improvements to be made. The assessment of the ‘usefulness’ of an indicator suggest an evaluation of its accuracy in measuring development, reliability of data and their ability to allow comparison, specifically in the global context.

The Human Development Index (HDI) is seen to be a useful indicator of development as it is a relatively more holistic indicator that measures development across three main areas – a long and healthy life, the attainment of knowledge and standard of living. It is a human-oriented, composite development indicator that places great emphasis on the well-being of individuals. Hence, it attempts to measure social and economic development, which can be measured at a global scale due to the ability to compare the HDI levels of countries. The higher the HDI value, the more socially and economically developed a country is likely to be. As an indicator of development, it also allows policy makers to analyse the policies in their country and aim to reach the standards of countries with higher HDI rankings, such as Norway which ranks first on the HDI. A wide disparity between the HDI levels of countries would indicate uneven development globally. However, the HDI has its limitations as well. First, while it attempts to incorporate the welfare of people as an aspect of development to be measured, it still relies heavily upon the economic aspect of development and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is because the sub indicators that contribute to the HDI are based largely on wealth. For instance, a long and healthy life is shows to have a correlation with affluence, with Singapore having both a high GDP (amongst the top 5 countries) and a long life expectancy of 80-85 years. This shows the limitations of the HDI – its inability to fully measure global development as the data used may be overly focused on economic development. Additionally, while the HDI allows comparison between countries, the precision of the comparison is in question as the HDI allows a relative rather than an absolute comparison. In other words, it takes into account the rankings of other countries rather than being assessed by a set criteria. 

Furthermore, the need for the Inequality adjusted HDI (IHDI) is evident of the HDI not being completely useful as it does not account for national inequality, in spite of equality being a hallmark of a developed country. For example, both the United States of America (USA) and Canada are seen to have HDI levels of 0.92, yet due to USA’s large national development gap, it falls to 0.7 on the IHDI. Therefore, the IHDI is necessary to complement the HDI in taking into account the inequalities within the country in order for the HDI to be more useful as an indicator.

Additionally, other indicators such as the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) are seen to be required in order to supplement the HDI. The MPI aims to provide greater information about the poor and level of poverty in a country, by expanding upon the 3 key indicators of the HDI, including sub-indicators such as nutrition and child mortality (health), years of schooling and school attendance (education) and levels of sanitation (standard of living). Hence, it is seen to complement the HDI to provide more in depth information about development in the lower strata of society. This is due to the MPI being measured on a household level, which is more detailed and hence serves as a more comprehensive data for policy makers to utilise in order to improve the current state of development. Countries such as Indonesia have MPI levels of 0.2 and have seen to use MPI as a measurement of development. Furthermore, the MPI can also be used to track a country’s level of development over time. Due to many countries utilising MPI, it can be perceived as a more useful indicator of global development in addition to the HDI. However, it would be important to also acknowledge the possible flaws of the MPI in its inability to identify intra-household disparities in development such as gender inequalities and the contentious nature of the unequal weightage accorded to each sub-indicator. Lastly, countries that only consider the number of people deemed multidimensionally poor may leave out a fraction of the population who are deprived in certain areas but are not deprived enough to be concluded as ‘multidimensionally poor’, failing to address their developmental needs.

Furthermore, due to the diverse and contested understandings of development, alternative indicators have been created to look at global development on a more social and sustainable scale. One example is the Happy Planet Index (HPI) which takes into account the ecological footprints of countries as well, placing a huge emphasis on environmental sustainability. 

The HPI takes into account a greater variety of development indicators, giving one a more useful and more comprehensive perspective on global development and its nuances. For example, while Costa Rica was the highest ranked country on the HPI, it was not ranked within the top 5 on the HDI rankings. Norway, despite being ranked first on the HDI, was ranked twelfth on the HPI. This foregrounds that the HDI fails to take into account certain aspects of development and therefore requires other indicators to increase its usefulness.  

However, the above indicators are lacking as they fail to set reachable targets and comprehensive goals in the aspect of global development. In order for an indicator to be more useful, it should not only inform one of the various developmental levels globally, but should also strive to enable policy makers to form concreate, realistic targets to improve development. Hence, there is the need for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which serve as a set of eight concrete international targets for countries. These targets that comprise aspects such as increasing women’s rights, are more holistic and are able to account for the social and economic aspects of development as well. The usefulness of the MDGs is evident from them acting as the springboard for the White Ribbon Alliance for expectant mothers, showcasing their value in creating tangible efforts to increase development. The MDGs also look towards sustainable development as they go beyond merely measuring development globally. This desire for sustainability is exhibited in the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which form the Post-2015 Development Agenda. These are forward-looking indicators to measure global development and prove more useful as they are tangible and future-oriented. The SDGs provide a framework of measuring development based on many categories such as literacy rates, human rights and life expectancy, marking a paradigm shift of indicators from mere measurements that quantify development to actual goals for countries to work towards. Since they are easy to comprehend and have high applicability in a global context, they allow for targeted policies to alleviate uneven development.

It is admittedly true that all indicators face data collection errors due to methodological issues. However, this should not discount their usefulness and importance in measuring global development. These indicators shape our understanding of global development as they are international indicators put forth by international organisations such as the World and the United Nations. Yet, in order to be more useful they should be used in tandem with one another as they serve to supplement each other’s possible loopholes, evident from the IHDI and the MPI complementing and improving upon the HDI. Lastly, for the indicators to be deemed useful, they should move towards sustainable development and aim to aid in policy development, thus foregrounding the need for the MDGs and SDGs. Thus, the HDI and other indicators are only useful if they are used to complement each other, allowing parallels to be drawn to ensure a more comprehensive understanding of development globally.

Isabel Chan (17-U1)
Constance Thum (17-A1)

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