Measuring human development

Published : Feb 25, 2005 00:00 IST

THE much-awaited Human Development Report (HDR) published annually since 1990 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was the brainchild of the late Pakistani economist Mahbub-ul-Haq. Amartya Sen, however, has right from its birth provided intellectual insights and refinement by thinking of human development as an expansion of human capabilities and human freedoms and by contributing to develop a Human Development Index (HDI) that measures human well-being along three dimensions of life expectancy, educational attainment and command over resources required for a decent living.

Traditionally, progress or development of a country was mainly measured in terms of economic growth or an increase in income per capita. While this approach has the advantage of being straightforward and easy to use, it overlooks crucial facts relevant to evaluate people's quality of life. A country, for instance, can very well have a high income per capita but nevertheless have a sizable section of population subject to premature mortality, malnutrition, illiteracy, social exclusion and so on. If that were to be the case, one needs to rethink what the point of economic growth is: can growth devoid of job opportunities, people's participation and empowerment, and equity be called development?

As an alternative to the orthodox approach, the Sen-inspired human development approach focusses on the expansion of people's capabilities and freedoms. It is not that in the human development framework, rising incomes and outputs are underestimated but rather they are seen as the "means" and not the "ends" of development.

So far, poverty has been one of the foremost concerns of HDRs. Just as development cannot be identified exclusively with income expansion, so too, poverty cannot be reduced solely to low income. In the human development perspective, as pointed out in HDR 1997, poverty means "the denial of choices and opportunities for a tolerable life". While in less developed countries this is often manifested in the forms of ill health, illiteracy, malnutrition and so on, in developed nations it assumes such forms as social ostracism, insecurity and unemployment. The magnitude of poverty in today's world is indeed alarming. HDR 2000 points out that about 1.2 billion people continue to live below the poverty line on less than $1 a day; more than 2.4 billion people are without basic sanitation; about 100 million are homeless; about 1 billion adults are illiterate; nearly 100 million children live or work on the street. From 1995, by introducing the Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), the HDRs have also been underlining the fact that poverty is very much gender-biased and hits girls and women much harder than boys and men.

Along with poverty, HDRs have also focussed on human rights, especially civil and political liberties. HDR 1992 argues that political freedom is an essential element of human development. HDR 2000 examines the interconnections between human rights and human development. The basic argument of these reports is that although political and economic freedoms are interlinked and can be seen as two sides of the same coin, each has its own intrinsic importance. Sometimes, it is possible to have one without the other. A country like China, for example, in recent years has made considerable economic progress and fares relatively well (ranked 94th in HDR 2004) as a "medium" human development country, despite its poor record on political freedoms and human rights.

In a rather unprecedented conceptual shift, HDR 2004 argues that cultural liberties (such as freedom to speak one's language and practice one's religion and lifestyles) are also an important component of human development. "Cultural liberty is", affirms the report, "a vital part of human development because being able to choose one's identity - who one is - without losing respect for others or being excluded from other choices is important in leading a full life". In this regard, the report finds India's performance impressive and a model for other long-standing and wealthier democracies: the Indian Constitution recognises and accommodates distinct group claims and enables the polity to be cohesive despite vast regional, linguistic and cultural diversities; on indicators of "national identification", "trust in institutions" and "support for democracy", Indian citizens are deeply committed to democracy and their country. Such performance stands especially in sharp contrast to, on the one hand, India's low performance in human development (ranked 127th in HDR 2004) and, on the other, the recent communal violence and the rise of groups that seek to impose a singular Hindu identity.

The most attractive as well as controversial aspect of the human development approach is the measuring tool, the HDI. It is attractive because the three basic human capabilities (longevity, education and standard of living) which were mostly earlier either overlooked or considered unnecessary to measure, receive a prominent attention in the human development paradigm. The computation of the HDI and ranking of countries on that basis has indeed become a popular and practical way of appraising governments of their performances as well as reminding them of their public policy priorities and obligations for the future.

The HDI, of course, is not without limitations and controversies. Besides the obvious difficulties of collection, comparability and reliability of empirical data for the construction of a coherent index, there is also the problem of aggregating the components of human life. Besides, the HDI tries to capture only a few of people's choices and leaves out other important ones that people value, the critics point out. Authoritative regimes and populist governments who are reluctant to introspect on the effectiveness of their policies have at various times objected to the results and policy implications of the HDI. When HDR 1992, for the first time, tried to construct a Political Freedom Index (PFI) based on the components of freedom of expression, political participation and so on, it generated so much political controversy in some circles and countries that it had to be dropped in the following year.

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