October 21st, 2016

Measuring human progress: challenges and prospects

By Dr Selim Jahan – Director of UNDP Human Development Report Office

Measuring human progress: challenges and prospects

Measuring development has always been a challenge, even though it has become a necessity in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. The Human Development Index (HDI) was published for the first time in 1990, following the emergence of the human development paradigm. It was a bold experiment in shifting the discourse in international development from measuring progress in purely income terms to considering human well-being in its broadest sense as the true yardstick of development. After all, as has been pointed out by others before, ‘GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.’

This year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the HDI. Looking back, we can see how useful the HDI has become to governments, policy makers, researchers, NGOs, civil society, the media and others, and to our collective understanding of what constitutes development. Uses of the HDI have also changed over the years, reflecting our broadening knowledge, constantly evolving socioeconomic challenges in the world, the need for methodological refinements, and our response to calls to include data on critical indicators of human progress such as sustainability and equity.

The ultimate objective of research insights anchored in data is to inform and guide policies, provide instruments for advocacy and undertake initiatives – all that seeks to improve the quality of life for people everywhere, by enhancing their capabilities and improving their opportunities. That said, it is also important to recognise that human development is a broader concept than what can be measured by a single index.

One of the characteristics of the HDI, or perhaps a drawback in the eyes of its critics, is its simplicity. The HDI provides a snapshot by distilling many aspects and dimensions of human development down to their essence. However, this average measure does not assess human development by different age groups, even though it can be disaggregated by age cohorts if data are available. As much human development hinges on the fate of the young, and there are more young people in the world today than ever before in history, it is surprising how small and shallow the pool of data on young people still is.

The YDI, therefore, is an admirable effort and timely contribution by the Commonwealth Secretariat to fill a critical gap in the global development landscape. I hope the YDI will underscore the importance of collecting more development data at national and sub-national levels, which are disaggregated by age, gender and income.

Only by attempting to assess the ability of young people to play a part in shaping their own destiny, and that of the world, is it possible to get a fuller measure of youth advancement. Therefore, I am particularly happy to note that the YDI seeks to assess the multidimensional nature of youth development by giving the same importance in the methodology to indicators on the civic and political participation levels of young people as it does to their education, health and economic prospects.

To a great extent, the world’s ability to attain the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 will depend on the capabilities of the young and the opportunities available to them. Therefore, the YDI is a welcome development that can help the world keep track of the progress we make in our pursuit of the SDGs in the next 15 years and beyond.

By providing country level scores and analysis on the status of the nearly 2 billion young people in the world, the YDI can help enrich the evidence base that governments need to design smarter policies, the private sector needs to guide investments, and NGOs need to target their interventions. It will also give the rest of us, including all the young people in the world, an objective benchmark that we can use to evaluate the well-being of a generation on whose shoulders rest the hopes of the entire world.

Composite indexes such as the YDI should always be considered as work in progress because their construction involves trade-offs. By no means are they perfect nor are they the last word on human or youth development, given the quirks in methodology and the limitations imposed by the quality and quantity of available data. Instead, they should be seen as tools that can help us plan and prepare a better future for all, by making us think critically about the most important lessons from the past.

© The Commonwealth