India and the Human Development Index

There’s the usual hand-wringing in the Indian newspapers today about India being 134 (among 182 countries) in the Human Development Index (HDI) compiled by the UNDP.  This is another report that is going to have its 5 minutes of fame, and will be forgotten tomorrow.

The report itself is about human migration, and there are really no surprises there.  People from medium and high HDI index regions move equally to developing and developed countries. People in very HDI regions move mainly to developed countries.   We know all that already, so let’s look at the list itself, and India’s place in it.

India is classified as a medium HDI country, much below such notables of human development as Algeria and Mongolia and Equatorial Guinea. Oh, even the occupied Palestinian territories fare better than India. That alone is enough to tell you all you need to know about the measures the UNDP researchers were using, and their relevance. Yes, at an absolute level India does need to improve on life expectancy and literacy and so on.   But are we really worse off than Turkmenistan or Suriname ?

This is how, according to the report, HDI is measured:

The human development index (HDI) is a summary measure of a country’s human development.   It measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions:
• a long and healthy life, as measured by life expectancy at birth;
• access to knowledge, as measured by the adult literacy rate and the combined gross enrolment (sic) ratio in education; and
• a decent standard of living, as measured by GDP per capita in purchasing power parity(PPP) US dollars.

These three dimensions are standardized to values between 0 and 1, and the simple average is taken to arrive at the overall HDI value in the range 0 to 1. Countries are then ranked on the basis of this value with a rank of 1 representing the highest HDI value.

Clearly, freedom, democracy or general human happiness are not part of HDI.

I’m also not sure how the researchers account for variances within the population – you could expect, for instance, that the Maldives (rank 95) would have a more homogeous HDI than India – i.e. everyone in India would not have the same HDI. So they are relegating a billion people to a lower HDI than most of them might have.

But the last part is the best – the report says they take an average of life expectancy and literacy and GDP, and compute the average HDI for that country.

This means that if you have, say, an oil-rich country with very high GDP and decent life expectancy but very low education levels (and no individual freedoms and a lot of societal restrictions), that country would score high on the HDI?  Nice.   This is not even hypothetical – if you take a look at the list, you’ll see several examples.

I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that 15 minutes of fame is all this list deserves.

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12 thoughts on “India and the Human Development Index

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