Assessing human development

By Professor Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics

The human development index (HDI), which the Human Development Report has made into something of a flagship, has been rather successful in serving as an alternative measure of development, supplementing GNP. Based as it is on three distinct components—indicators of longevity, education and income per head—it is not exclusively focused on economic opulence (as GNP is). Within the limits of these three components, the HDI has served to broaden substantially the empirical attention that the assessment of development processes receives.

However, the HDI, which is inescapably a crude index, must not be seen as anything other than an introductory move in getting people interested in the rich collection of information that is present in the Human Development Report. Indeed, I must admit I did not initially see much merit in the HDI itself, which, as it happens, I was privileged to help devise. At first I had expressed to Mahbub ul Haq, the originator of the Human Development Report, considerable scepticism about trying to focus on a crude index of this kind, attempting to catch in one simple number a complex reality about human development and deprivation. In contrast to the coarse index of the HDI, the rest of the Human Development Report contains an extensive collection of tables, a wealth of information on a variety of social, economic and political features that influence the nature and quality of human life. Why give prominence, it was natural to ask, to a crude summary index that could not begin to capture much of the rich information that makes the Human Development Report so engaging and important?

This crudeness had not escaped Mahbub at all. He did not resist the argument that the HDI could not be but a very limited indicator of development. But after some initial hesitation, Mahbub persuaded himself that the dominance of GNP (an overused and oversold index that he wanted to supplant) would not be broken by any set of tables. People would look at them respectfully, he argued, but when it came to using a summary measure of development, they would still go back to the unadorned GNP, because it was crude but convenient. As I listened to Mahbub, I heard an echo of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton”: “Human kind/Cannot bear very much reality”.

“We need a measure”, Mahbub demanded, “of the same level of vulgarity as GNP—just one number—but a measure that is not as blind to social aspects of human lives as GNP is.” Mahbub hoped that not only would the HDI be something of an improvement on—or at least a helpful supplement to—GNP, but also that it would serve to broaden public interest in the other variables that are plentifully analysed in the Human Development Report.

Mahbub got this exactly right, I have to admit, and I am very glad that we did not manage to deflect him from seeking a crude measure. By skilful use of the attracting power of the HDI, Mahbub got readers to take an involved interest in the large class of systematic tables and detailed critical analyses presented in the Human Development Report. The crude index spoke loud and clear and received intelligent attention and through that vehicle the complex reality contained in the rest of the Report also found an interested audience.

This blog entry is a special contribution made to the 1999 Human Development Report “Globalization with a Human Face”