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Putting the pieces back together again: an illustration of the problem of interpreting development indicators using an African case study

By S. Morse


Indicators are commonly recommended as tools for assessing the attainment of development, and the current vogue is for aggregating a number of indicators together into a single index. It is claimed that such indices of development help facilitate maximum impact in policy terms by appealing to those who may not necessarily have technical expertise in data collection, analysis and interpretation. In order to help counter criticisms of over-simplification, those advocating such indices also suggest that the raw data be provided so as to allow disaggregation into component parts and hence facilitate a more subtle interpretation if a reader so desires. This paper examines the problems involved with interpreting indices of development by focusing on the United Nations Development Programmes (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) published each year in the Human Development Reports (HDRs). The HDI was intended to provide an alternative to the more economic based indices, such as GDP, commonly used within neo-liberal development agendas. The paper explores the use of the HDI as a gauge of human development by making comparisons between two major political and economic communities in Africa (ECOWAS and SADC). While the HDI did help highlight important changes in human development as expressed by the HDI over 10 years, it is concluded that the HDI and its components are difficult to interpret as methodologies have changed significantly and the 'averaging' nature of the HDI could hide information unless care is taken. The paper discusses the applicability of alternative models to the HDI such as the more neo-populist centred methods commonly advocated for indicators of sustainable development. (C) 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved

Year: 2004
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