Our Perspectives

The Human Development Index – what it is and what it is not


Girls in school in PakistanA UNDP project helped construct a girls’ primary school in Panjpai, Pakistan. Photo: UNDP Pakistan

A concept is always broader than any of its proposed measures. Any suggested measure cannot fully capture the richness, the breadth and the depth of the concept itself. This is true of the notion of human development as well.

There are two types of measures for human development: The breadth measure, termed Human Development Accounting, encompass all indicators related to human development assessments. The focus measures, or composite indices, concentrates on some basic dimensions of human development.

Human Development Accounting is required to make a comprehensive assessment of human development conditions in any society, but it does not provide a single number to synthesize the state of affairs. Composite indicesprovide a single number, but cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the state of human development. Focus measures are extremely good for advocacy, for initiating healthy competition among societies and for raising awareness, but not in providing a comprehensive picture.

It is in these perspectives that the Human Development Index (HDI) was constructed. Three things prompted to come up with such a measure:

  • First, The HDI captures these basic dimensions of human development: lead a long and healthy life, to acquire knowledge and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living. Without them, many other opportunities remain inaccessible.
  • Second, if only breadth measures of human development are presented, people will revert to GDP per capita for a single measure of development. The HDI would change that outlook.
  • Third, for measuring human well-being, one needs as vulgar but not as narrow a measure like income per capita which is blind to broader aspects of human lives. The HDI provides that broader measure.

Five observations are quite pertinent about the HDI:

  • First, the HDI is not a comprehensive measure of human development. It just focuses on the basic dimensions but does not take into account a number of other important ones.
  • Second, it is composed of long-term human development outcomes. Thus it does not reflect the input efforts in terms of policies nor can it measure short-term achievements.
  • Third, it shares all the limitations of composite measures. But keeping it simple ensures its acceptability, understanding and predictability.
  • Fourth, the HDI is an average measure and thus masks a series of disparities and inequalities within countries. Disaggregation of the HDI in terms of gender, regions and ethnic groups can be and has been used widely for policy formulation.
  • Fifth, income enters into the HDI as a proxy for resources needed to have a decent standard of living - how it is transformed into the health and education dimensions of the HDI.

The HDI cannot provide a complete picture of human development in any situation. It has to be supplemented with other useful indicators in order to get a comprehensive view.

If a metaphor is used, human development accounting represents a house and the HDI is the door to the house. One should not mistake the door to be the house and one should not stop at the door, rather one should enter the house.

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