Rethinking HDI as a time series, not a snapshot

With a score of 0.644, India was ranked 134 out of 193 countries. Hence, debates around the ranking were inevitable in the electoral discourse of 2024.
The HDI was the brainchild of Mahbub ul-Haq, who grew up amid the tumultuous partition of the subcontinent and passionately believed in a human-centric approach to development.
The HDI was the brainchild of Mahbub ul-Haq, who grew up amid the tumultuous partition of the subcontinent and passionately believed in a human-centric approach to development. Photo | X

The release of the Human Development Index (HDI) 2023-24 by the United Nations Development Programme has once again brought this influential metric to the forefront of global discourse.

With a score of 0.644, India was ranked 134 out of 193 countries. Hence, debates around the ranking were inevitable in the electoral discourse of 2024. But it’s crucial to revisit the use and interpretation of this measure.

The HDI was the brainchild of Mahbub ul-Haq, who grew up amid the tumultuous partition of the subcontinent and passionately believed in a human-centric approach to development.

The index is calculated by measuring longevity, health, education and standard of living. Longevity and health are assessed by life expectancy at birth, standard of living by gross national income (GNI) per capita, and education by the mean years of schooling for adults and the expected years of schooling for children. The HDI uses geometric mean (instead of arithmetic mean) of the indicators, thereby making sure no single dimension can disproportionately influence the overall score of a country.

While the HDI has undoubtedly been a valuable tool in measuring social progress, its ranking system and methodology warrant a re-evaluation. The index simplifies complex social dynamics into numbers, potentially distorting our understanding of progress. It is skewed towards nations with smaller, homogeneous populations.

The HDI’s true value lies in tracking a nation’s progress over time, rather than comparing it with others at a single point. Comparing China and Sri Lanka, for example, is misleading. Despite their similar scores (0.788 and 0.780, respectively), China is an economic powerhouse while Sri Lanka recently survived a balance of payments crisis with external aid.

Per capita income, one of its primary components, is a mean value that’s sensitive to outliers with smaller denominators (population in this case). In the standard of living index, incorporating median household income could provide a more accurate reflection of the economic well-being of the typical citizen, especially in terms of inequality. The median income aligns with the HDI’s goal of measuring human development by offering a more equitable perspective on standard of living. While the HDI currently uses GNI per capita, availability of data makes the median income a potentially more informative alternative.

In the education domain, the index measures mean years spent on schooling. This does not measure employability, skillset or quality of education to the population for economic activity or self-empowerment.

Importantly, the HDI overlooks key factors such as legal accessibility, inclusivity, inequality, disaster proneness, political stability and environmental sustainability. This is evident in the case of Delhi which, despite severe air pollution, tops among Indian states with a score of over 0.750. The quality of life of an average citizen does not reflect in the HDI as it utilises only life expectancy at birth and doesn’t take morbidity into account. Ignoring Disability and Quality adjusted life years provides a distorted picture of health of the nation. A lot of people with ill health would be undetectable in the score since we prolong their lifespan by medical means, but their quality of life is not necessarily desirable.

Thus, as we delve deeper into the intricacies of the HDI, it becomes increasingly clear that this tool, while undeniably valuable, may oversimplify the complex social dynamics at play within nations.

The 2023-24 report introduces the Planetary Pressures–Adjusted Human Development Index, which adjusts the HDI according to a country’s environmental impact. This is a step in the right direction.

Therefore, let’s shift our focus from a snapshot view of the HDI rankings to a time series perspective. This approach would highlight each country’s progress or regression over time, providing a more nuanced understanding of development.

To illustrate, India has made significant strides in HDI over the past few decades, rising from 0.427 in 1990 to 0.644 in 2023. This is a testament to the country’s ongoing efforts in areas like health, education and income. There is a 9.1-year increase in life expectancy at birth, 4.6 years in expected years of schooling, and an increase of 3.8 years in mean years of schooling

In a world that is becoming more complex and interconnected, our measures of development must evolve. We need to incorporate a broader set of indicators that capture the multifaceted nature of human development. It is important to recognise aspects like environmental sustainability, gender equality, linguistic diversity and political freedom to create a more nuanced understanding of development.

In conclusion, it’s important to view the HDI as a tool for self-evaluation rather than a global leader board. The HDI remains a powerful measure of human development, but it’s our interpretation of this tool that needs to evolve. Instead of getting fixated on rankings, we must focus on understanding the unique socio-economic contexts of each nation and their progress over time.

In this spirit, let’s strive for a more comprehensive measure of human development that truly reflects the diverse realities of our world. By raising these concerns, our intention is not to undermine the credibility of the HDI, but rather encourage its refinement. In the pursuit of development, we must ensure no aspect of human progress is left behind. With the rise of generative AI based on large language models, a big chunk of skillset might be undervalued over time. So the methodology last revised in 2010 needs a major revision.

Aravinda Chinnadurai

Academic and public health physician

(Views are personal)

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