Rebeca Grynspan: Opening Address at the Second Conference on Measuring Human Progress

Mar 4, 2013

Opening Address by Rebeca Grynspan,
Associate Administrator, UNDP
Second Conference on Measuring Human Progress
4-5 March, 2013, New York

Welcome to this important event.

Everyone around the room is highly experienced in measurement: some of you are statisticians who design measures and the surveys to populate them; some of you are economists or social scientists, who interpret data and make insights about the world in which we live; and some of you are policy makers who use data to guide decision making.

As an economist and a policy maker myself, I know well the importance of measurement: information is the lifeblood of good decision making. Indicators are often the pulse of government.

And so it follows that the way we measure progress matters very much. 

Without accurate and clear information on the issues which matter most, how can an electorate judge their government and a government respond to their electorate?

Policy makers use data to track trends, identify issues needing their attention, and evaluate whether their policies are having the desired effect. So they will look at, and worry about, the indicators they have in their possession and the ones they will be judged by!  But also public opinion, research and social dialogue is shaped and heavily influenced by the information produced.  Citizens and civil society use data too to hold their governments to account and it is exhausting for them, and most of the time almost impossible to sustain in the long term, to produce alternative indicators to the ones of the Government. 

As Joe Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi pointed out in their seminal 2009 report on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, what we measure reflects what we do.  As soon as a society starts paying attention to a particular indicator we elevate the importance of what it is we are measuring.  And so it follows that we have to be sure we are measuring the things that really matter…. And that the things that matter are being measured in the right way.

Since its introduction in 1990, the Human Development Report (HDR) has had a profound impact on the way we understand development.  It has been a catalyst in the growing understanding that the basic objective of development goes well beyond economic growth.  Human Development is about giving people the freedom to lead lives that they have reason to value.

And Mahbub Ul Haq author of the first HDR, recognized the power of measurement when he introduced the Human Development Index in that first report. But right from the onset he recognized the challenge of measuring human development, asking: “Does human development lend itself to measurement and quantification? How can it be operationalised?” 

Knowing that not everything of importance to human development can be measured, ul Haq proposed a few basic principles to guide the construction of the Human Development Index (HDI) – principles which could help guarantee simplicity in computation, ease of interpretation and communication, and flexibility. Flexibility, in particular meant leaving the door open to refinements, once better alternatives (methodological, conceptual, or better data) became available.

These principles guided the introduction in 2010 of additional indices on inequality, multi-dimensional poverty and gender equity, all developed to complement the HDI’s power in explaining inequality, deprivation and exclusion, the so called “missing dimensions” of the HDI.

 As the HDI represents a national average of human development achievements, the Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI) tried to capture the ‘loss’ in potential human development due to inequality reflecting inequality in each dimension of the HDI :  life expectancy , schooling, and income.   The IHDI will be equal to the HDI when there is no inequality but falls below the HDI as inequality rises.  

The Gender Inequality Index (GII) reflects gender-based disadvantage in three dimensions – reproductive health, empowerment, and the labour market.  Since it includes different dimensions than the HDI, it cannot be interpreted as a loss in HDI itself, but rather more broadly as loss in human development due to discrimination against women and girls.

The Multidimensional Poverty Index  (MPI) recognizes that poverty is not only about inadequate income, and examines deprivations at the household level across the three dimensions of the HDI (living standards, health, and education) and their overlap.  Here the notion of intensity comes up when people simultaneously experience multiple deprivations.

Specifically, there are 10 indicators of household deprivation –  ranging from having no household member who has completed five years of schooling, to having had one or more children die, to not having access to clean drinking water, electricity, or adequate sanitation.

There were mixed opinions about these changes among experts and users.  Indeed, the changes were controversial.  Some referring to the validity of the indicators design to reflect the phenomena we wanted, others because of the lack of the necessary information in all countries to build a real universal comparative base, others, because they felt they were too complex (like the critique about the GII that it was very complex and hard to interpret, because it mixes the analysis of well-being, empowerment, and gender gaps.)

This scrutiny and debate was of course welcomed by the HDRO and UNDP and was also a source of gratification, because the level of discussion about the changes was indicative of the importance given to the HDI and these new indices.

The HDI remains – for many - the most widely accepted alternative to per-capita GDP as a measure of development progress. But we must not rest on our laurels. Much more remains to be done if we are to build the best measure of human development.

Last year, our first conference on measuring human progress gave broad support to further refinement of the human development indices but also emphasized the importance of continuity and ‘stability’ of the indices in the near future.

This second conference on measurement, being held today and tomorrow, continues that conversation with the sessions to follow today looking specifically at how we measure inequality, the gender gap, and multi-dimensional poverty. 

Tomorrow’s sessions will specifically address the issue of incorporating sustainability something which the HDI is silent about. And that is why at Rio+20 UNDP began a conversation around how issues of sustainability, including environmental sustainability, could be incorporated into measures of human development. 

So to finish let me repeat what we know but need to always remember:  that not everything that counts can be counted. And that not everything that is counted counts.  This should be at the back of our mind during the next two days. The HDI has never claimed – and will never be able – to include everything that matters to the development of humanity.  But are there things that count which should now be included? 

Moving forward, we must also recognise the trade-off between statistical accuracy and complexity, and the ease of communication.   The best statistical measure may be a failure if it is misunderstood or ignored by those whose opinions we seek to influence, including the public and policy makers.

I wish you well in your deliberations over the next two days, and look forward to the outcomes of this important meeting.

UNDP Around the world