Making sense of (human) development

Published: Sunday | November 28, 2010 Comments 0
Baker
Large numbers of Caribbean women work outside the home and are outpacing men in the educational sphere.

Peta-Anne Baker, Contributor

Two Sundays ago, my colleague, Martin Henry, headlined his column 'Making sense of development statistics'. His focus was the Planning Institute of Jamaica's (PIOJ's) handling of the recently announced country rankings in human development, suggesting that Jamaica's position had dramatically improved (our position at number 80 has actually declined by six points since 2005).

Country rankings in human development are a hallmark of the United Nations Human Development Report, the 2010 and 20th edition of which was launched in Jamaica this past week.

Like Martin, I, too, have read the book Lies, Damn Lies and Statis-tics, although I am reluctant to ascribe such questionable motives to the PIOJ in its handling of the Human Deve-lopment Index (HDI) rankings. The only other book about statistics that I can honestly say I enjoyed was called Statistics Without Tears, which helped me survive my introduction to the subject. I am happy to lend my copy to the folks who drafted the PIOJ release that drew Martin's ire.

On a more serious note, the matter of what to make of statistical information produced about a country's level of development is but one of the several challenges we face as we try to determine what development actually means for us as individuals and as a country.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), initiator of the HDI, has pioneered the development of a variety of measures that seek to take us beyond the old standard of per capita income. The HDI was the earliest of what has now become quite a range of indicators of development. It is computed by measuring life expectancy, education, and standard of living. All 20 editions of the Human Development Report (HDR) are available online at http://hdr.undp.org.

People - the centre of development

The HDR inserts into official development discourse perspectives that have been long advocated by grass-roots and other non-governmental development organisations - people are the real wealth of nations. An eminent group of economists and philosophers, among others, annually take on the task of converting this principle into actual indicators that can be used as instruments of policymaking. Happily, one does not need to be an economist or philosopher to make sense of the HDR.

Over the years, the UNDP team has continued to refine not only how the HDI is computed, but has developed several other approaches to understanding human well-being and development. One shift, for example, has been the change from the use of gross domestic product to gross national income, a measure which seeks to take into account remittances from abroad, something which makes a significant difference in the lives of many Jamaicans. In fact, the 2008 and 2009 Survey of Living Conditions reports, which were also launched last week, note the decline in the receipt of remittances, a factor that can certainly be seen to have contributed to the increase in the number of people living in poverty in Jamaica.

The current issue of the HDR saw work continuing on developing a real representation of the status of women in society. Earlier efforts produced the Gender Development Index, which considered the gender dimension of the HDI, and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which focused on women's formal participation in the political process. The new Gender Inequality Index is a further refinement and now considers factors such as maternal mortality and adolescent fertility.

The Caribbean, in general, and Jamaica, in particular, tend to score comparatively well on the Gender Inequality Index. In fact, Jamaica's HDI rank changes by only four points when gender inequality is taken into account. Australia falls from a rank of two to 18, and the United States (US) declines from four to 37. Caribbean researchers, academics, and activists have noted that large numbers of women do work outside of the home and are outpacing men in the educational sphere. However, women still tend to be paid less than men in similar positions, they continue to carry primary responsibility for caregiving alongside their economic roles, and continue to experience unacceptable levels of domestic violence and sexual exploitation. The UNDP has now taken note of the need to find ways to address these considerations.

Development not only about people

The environmentalists continue to remind us that development has not necessarily occurred because we have poured concrete or asphalt over what appears to be unoccupied land, or if more people have jobs or are attending school. (Although to hear many of our leaders talk, one could be forgiven for thinking that this was the case.) Countries like Norway and the US, ranked first and fourth of the 169 countries that were rated this year, "overconsumed" the world's resources by factors of 3.1 and 4.5 times the levels considered appropriate for environmental sustainability. This means that the current levels of so-called development in these countries are unsustainable and, truth be told, jeopardise the development prospects of other countries much further down the HDI scale.

At the national level, the picture is no more reassuring. Consider the prime minister's unconditional commitment early in the life of his administration to have decisions on 'development' applications finalised within a 90-day period. Consider also the unchallenged and repeated threatening statements made by a certain foreign diplomat when parish councils and other planning agencies attempted to do their duty in the regulation of projects. One gets the impression that private sector, especially foreign-investor interests in the tourism and mining sectors, must always take priority over environmental considerations. In any event, our political leaders who have an eye to the next election tend to prefer the quickest route to job creation, a stance that is often supported at the community level.

As recently as August this year, the chairman of the Balaclava Area Development Committee wrote a letter to the editor of The Gleaner to complain that the efforts of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) to have Appleton Estate improve its waste-disposal system had caused people to lose their jobs, and was creating distress among the communities surrounding the estate. Although the letter writer acknowledged the need to resolve the waste disposal problem, which, by my recollection, had resulted in repeated incidents of fish kills and reports of threats to public health over the years, he urged the prime minister to intervene to bring an end to NEPA's "dictatorial" behaviour.

Only the most insensitive would not be disturbed by the chilling statement in this year's HDR that "two decades after the first HDR, there is little evidence of progress in making the world more sustainable nor in effectively protecting vulnerable people against shocks". (P. 82)

'Good things don't always come together'

A major conclusion of this year's HDR is that there is not necessarily a direct relationship between improvements in a country's HDI rank and improvements in other aspects of life in that country. The 2010 report notes that a high rating on the HDI does not automatically mean that citizens of a country, especially women, are able to participate freely in the political process of their country, that leaders gracefully demit office, even if elections are held or that people feel that they are in control of their lives.

For example, Saudi Arabia, at 55, ranks among the High Human Development Countries, but it is not a democracy, does not permit women to vote and has a score of four of a possible five in terms of human-rights violations (where one represents the lowest number of violations). On the other hand, Mali, which is almost at the bottom of the HDI scale with a rank of 160, has an elected representative government whose members demit office when voted out and has fewer reports of human-rights violations than Saudi Arabia or Jamaica. The people of Mali are also more likely to interact with their public officials than the citizens of either Saudi Arabia or Jamaica. In similar vein, when adjusted for inequality in the distribution of income, Jamaica, at 80, and Tanzania, at 148, both move up nine points while the US, at four, moves down by nine points.

The UNDP and the team that produce the HDR has produced an invaluable tool which can be used for policy formulation as well as for education. It is to be hoped, for example, that the Ministry of Education would approach the UNDP about organising workshops for teachers on how the HDR can be used to enrich the school curriculum. Perhaps, most important, work to widen and deepen our understanding of the characteristics and process of sustainable human development provides us with a powerful instrument for advocacy. Civil-society organisations must continue to advocate for the translation of contents of the HDR into concrete changes in the interest not only of people, but also of the planet.

Dr Peta-Anne Baker is a lecturer in social work at the UWI. She may be contacted at pab.ja2009@gmail.com. Feedback may also be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com.

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