What counts to us in de­vel­op­ment

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - SELIM JAHAN Selim Jahan is direc­tor of the Hu­man De­vel­op­ment Re­port Of­fice and lead au­thor of the Hu­man De­vel­op­ment Re­port.

To most peo­ple, “de­vel­op­ment” is best mea­sured by the quan­tity of change — like gains in av­er­age in­come, life ex­pectancy, or years spent in school. The Hu­man De­vel­op­ment In­dex (HDI), a com­pos­ite mea­sure of na­tional progress that my of­fice at the United Na­tions De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme over­sees, com­bines all three statis­tics to rank coun­tries rel­a­tive to one an­other.

What many do not re­alise, how­ever, is that such met­rics, while use­ful, do not tell the en­tire story of de­vel­op­ment. In fact, to un­der­stand how devel­oped a coun­try is, we must also grasp how peo­ple’s lives are af­fected by progress. And to un­der­stand that, we must con­sider the qual­ity of the change that is be­ing re­ported.

When statis­ti­cians com­pare coun­tries, they re­quire com­men­su­rate data. To com­pare school at­ten­dance, for ex­am­ple, re­searchers would count the num­ber of reg­is­tered stu­dents in each coun­try, rel­a­tive to all school-age chil­dren (al­though even this can be a chal­lenge in many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, where record keep­ing is not al­ways stan­dard­ised).

But to gauge the rel­a­tive qual­ity of a coun­try’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, re­searchers would want to de­ter­mine whether stu­dents are ac­tu­ally learn­ing. For those num­bers, statis­ti­cians would need to test stu­dents across a range of sub­jects, a project that is far more am­bi­tious than sim­ply tak­ing at­ten­dance.

Statis­ti­cians have al­ways recog­nised that com­par­ing quan­ti­ties is far eas­ier than com­par­ing qual­ity. But, be­cause ex­ist­ing mea­sures are all we have, the weak­nesses are of­ten over­looked when rank­ing rel­a­tive gains or mak­ing poli­cies, even though “progress” ac­cord­ing to a given in­di­ca­tor is not nec­es­sar­ily gen­uine. If the world is ever to reach par­ity in de­vel­op­ment, we must change how we gauge and cat­a­logue the qual­ity of pol­icy ini­tia­tives.

Con­sider the statis­tics mea­sured by the HDI — life ex­pectancy, ed­u­ca­tion, and per capita in­come. Life ex­pectancy statis­tics sug­gest that the world is get­ting health­ier, and data show that peo­ple are liv­ing longer than ever be­fore; since 1990, av­er­age life ex­pectancy has in­creased by about six years. But the in­crease in qual­ity of life has not been as dra­matic. Those ex­tra years are of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by ill­ness and dis­abil­ity — such as de­men­tia, which the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion now es­ti­mates af­fects 47.5 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide.

While life ex­pectancy can be cal­cu­lated based on birth and death records, in­dices that mea­sure qual­ity of life, like the WHO’s dis­abil­ity-ad­justed life year es­ti­mates, re­quire con­sid­er­able amounts of in­for­ma­tion on a wide range of ill­nesses and dis­abil­i­ties in ev­ery coun­try. And, un­for­tu­nately, the dif­fi­culty of gath­er­ing such data means that many life-qual­ity datasets are in­com­plete or in­fre­quently com­piled.

It’s a sim­i­larly mixed pic­ture for ed­u­ca­tion. The world is no doubt mak­ing progress in ex­tend­ing ac­cess to schools, with more chil­dren be­ing en­rolled and at­tend­ing than ever be­fore. But how do we mea­sure the gaps in ed­u­ca­tional qual­ity? About 250 mil­lion chil­dren world­wide do not learn ba­sic skills, even though half of them have spent at least four years in school.

It will come as no sur­prise that in most coun­tries, schools in wealth­ier neigh­bour­hoods typ­i­cally have bet­ter fa­cil­i­ties, more qual­i­fied teach­ers, and smaller class sizes. Ad­dress­ing in­equal­ity re­quires mea­sur­ing ed­u­ca­tional out­comes, rather than school en­roll­ment rates.

The OECD’s Pro­gram for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment (Pisa), which re­lies on tests not di­rectly linked to cur­ric­ula, is one ap­proach to mak­ing cross-coun­try com­par­isons.

The re­sults for 2015 paint a much richer pic­ture of ed­u­ca­tional per­for­mance across par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries, while high­light­ing stark dis­par­i­ties.

For ex­am­ple, Pisa found that “so­cio-eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents across OECD coun­tries are al­most three times more likely than ad­van­taged stu­dents not to at­tain the base­line level of pro­fi­ciency in sci­ence”.

Data on em­ploy­ment — crit­i­cal for pol­i­cy­mak­ers, as they pre­pare for the fu­ture — tell a sim­i­lar story. The 2015 Hu­man De­vel­op­ment Re­port recog­nised that as the world moves to­ward a knowl­edge econ­omy, low-skill or mar­ginal work­ers are at greater risk of los­ing their jobs, and op­por­tu­ni­ties for ex­ploita­tion of in­for­mal or un­paid work­ers in­crease.

To put this in per­spec­tive, con­sider em­ploy­ment pro­jec­tions for the Euro­pean Union, which fore­see the ad­di­tion of 16 mil­lion new jobs be­tween 2010 and 2020. But over the same pe­riod, the num­ber of jobs avail­able for peo­ple with the least for­mal ed­u­ca­tion is an­tic­i­pated to de­cline, by about 12 mil­lion.

“Not ev­ery­thing that can be counted counts. Not ev­ery­thing that counts can be counted,” so­ci­ol­o­gist Wil­liam Bruce Cameron wrote in 1963.

His dic­tum re­mains true to­day, though when it comes to mea­sur­ing hu­man de­vel­op­ment, I would sug­gest a slight re­vi­sion: “Not ev­ery­thing that is counted counts for ev­ery­thing.”

Eq­ui­table hu­man de­vel­op­ment re­quires that pol­i­cy­mak­ers pay more at­ten­tion to the qual­ity of out­comes, rather than fo­cus­ing pri­mar­ily on quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sures of change. Only when we know how peo­ple are be­ing af­fected by de­vel­op­ment can we de­sign poli­cies that bring about the most valu­able im­prove­ments in their lives.

“The in­ten­tion to live as long as pos­si­ble isn’t one of the mind’s best in­ten­tions,” the au­thor Deepak Cho­pra once ob­served, “be­cause quan­tity isn’t the same as qual­ity.”

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