The numbers game

Can the cold logic of statistics ever breathe life into yardsticks for deciding whether a nation has done good or bad by its people?

By Anupam Goswami
Published: Friday 15 July 1994

-- Figures can be fun as well as funny. That the Human Development Index (HDI) -- that acclaimed measure of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to judge the state of being in the countries of the world -- has the second trait in ample measure is suggested by the unwavering approval it has received from all quarters, regardless of the other beliefs and ideologies they house. This reception has been accorded not only by nations, ranging from those who have done well by the HDI to those who have suffered in comparison; it has also been attended by the entire gamut of public opinion within these countries.

Already, displaying the stony logic which they pass for hardheadedness, several leading thinktanks in the US have greeted the latest update of the HDI, in the UNDP's Human Development Report 1994, with the proclamations that only nations who push this tag higher deserve to be supported with higher aid. On the other hand, the low-HDI status of India has moved the respective consciences of both the Left and the Right within the country, even if only to criticise the centrist establishment.

The sponsors of the HDI clearly have every reason to be pleased by such salutations. Their device, 5 years after its invention in 1990, has gained universal acceptance as a yardstick to see whether nations are doing good or bad by their people. The HDI has already become the moral standard for those who are privileged to pronounce judgement on all aspects of social reality in various countries.

All's well that counts well
While numbers are known to make nations, such fetishes to mark what their performance actually adds up to has never been so stark. Purely for this purpose, HDI stands apart from all other indicators of standards of living, even though its creator, the eminent economist Mahbub-ul-Haq, sees in it several other advantages over earlier tools to monitor the level of development. However, while the latter, the most important of which was the venerable Gross National Product, did facilitate a comparison between countries, it was always accompanied by corollary explanations of the inequitous economic relationships which helped some of them to do better than the others.

In contrast, the very terms of the HDI are such -- life expectancy, adult literacy, schooling and purchasing power parity enjoyed by the population -- that it establishes the rich, industrialised countries as the good guys at the top and the poor countries, the baddies at the bottom.

It is no coincidence that the countries with high HDIs are also those who have followed the most resource intensive and unsustainable lifestyles. On the contrary, even the most lavish of welfare systems, notably those of the Scandinavian countries, firmly look upon education and health as critical inputs for ever higher economic production and consumption. And with their collective and individual frustrations to catch up with the North, most countries of the South have initiated long- and short-term programmes to improve their "population characteristics" which would enable enhanced economic growth.

And with what Ivan Ilich has memorably described as "unscrupulous benevolence", development's protagonists popularised these inputs as basic needs for those low on social or economic scales. The world has had more than its share of sustainable societies and communities. However, in the face of relentless development, they have always been made out to to ignorant and impoverished. The attempts to rescue them have consumed hundreds of billions of every currency in the world. Yet, several times over is required to improve HDIs in the world, and that plea is being raised to a shriller pitch by most development agencies.

That tune may change. An increasingly apparent shortcoming of development is its inability to create new jobs, even as it uproots traditional lifestyles. The advanced stage of this problem has been evident since the late '80s in Europe and North America, where the phrase "Growth Without Jobs" has become dismally popular. Many more countries of the South, too, have grappled with the realisation that the modernised sector just cannot be made adequately labour intensive to provide sufficient incomes. No statistical indicator is capable of capturing this experience of several communities and societies across the world. Funnily enough, the present flagbearers of development have sought to allay this pain by demanding higher investments and aid for human skills creation. They continue to lisp by numbers for only numbers come to them.

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