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Measuring the immeasurable: The fallacies of quantifying “Human Development”

Taye Negussie(PhD)

With the view to address the weakness of the traditional economic oriented Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measurement that glossed over the human aspect of development, the United Nation Development Program (UNDP) decided to release every year since 1990 an annual report on the state of human development for each member state – the Human Development Index (HDI).


The first Human Development Report, thus, defined “human development” as “the process of increasing people’s choices”. The report argued that the most critical choices that ever haunt people were: to lead a long life, to be knowledgeable and to have access to income for a decent living. Accordingly, the report proposed the aggregate index of life expectancy, educational attainment, and adjusted per capita income to constitute the Human Development Index (HDI) of a nation or a group of population.
Though by now the UNDP’s annual HDI report appears to command a measure of recognition, like other critiques I feel despite its relative improvement over the GDP measurement, the HDI measurement by itself suffers from a number of conceptual ambiguities and logical fallacies.


The folly of quantification

For starters, consider the definition accorded to “human development” as “the process of increasing people’s choices”. What does this definition imply? Does the said “human development” somewhat signify the level of improvement registered in that uniquely human quality of people’s life?


It goes without saying that any serious effort to measure “human development” first and foremost must start with somewhat clearer conception of “human nature”. In the absence of this, it would be hardly possible to imagine what the object of measurement might be. Since the HDI report never explicitly states the assumption of “human nature”, we need to decipher the implicit assumption by carefully examining its view of “human development”.


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When one defines “human development” as the process of widening “people’s choices”, then, it becomes clear that the matter under consideration is some object out there that people badly seek to acquire.


To the extent that we speak of the acquisition of object out there, then the conception of “human development” should be something that most likely concerns human’s physical existence. Here, I am well aware that some astute readers may doubt this assertion for the simple fact that there is a mention of education in the portfolio of HDI Index. No worry! I would try to address that concern in the next section.


Now, if we agree that the HDI’s pivotal concern is that of people’s physical or body existence, then, it follows that its assumption of “human nature” must draw on that positivistic-empiricist perspective which champions the view that humans are essentially body-beings primarily programmed to care for their body comfort and pleasure. And as such, the positivistic-empiricist view places humans on almost similar plane with other animals.


Meanwhile, against this positivist-empiricist view stands the opposing philosophical-spiritual perspective which accords due recognition to the uniqueness of human nature as constituting of both soul/spiritual and body-being. According to this line of thought, with the proper nurturing and development of the soul/spiritual component – the inner-being – it is quite possible for humans to discipline and rule over their animalistic body-being.


Thus, in my view, if there needs to be any genuine attempt to estimate a semblance of “human development”, then it necessarily ought to rest on a reasonable consideration of this inner-dimension of human life for it is the pivotal element that sets humans apart from other animals. Unfortunately, it appears that aspect of human life is quite far removed from being an object of quantifiable measurement at least in the face of the current level of knowledge we have attained. So, this makes the validity and reliability of HDI devise highly improbable to serve as a measurement of “human development” in the sense of implying the level of maturity attained in that uniquely human quality.


Dubious proximate indicators

The plausibility of HDI measurement also becomes more suspect when one looks at how the proposed proximate indicators relate to the issue of “human development. Take for instance, the variable of longevity as determined by the average life-span of a given group of people. Apparently, the rationale for choosing longevity as one of the indices of “human development” is the assumption that longer life span may imply “freedom” from illness.


The flaws of this assumption can be discerned in many ways. The first and most important being that of its inexcusable reduction of the noble and complex concept of human freedom to mere ease from illness. Given the fact that an ease from illness can as well be secured by non-human animals, as is so often the case, so what does it make that sort of “freedom” characteristically a human achievement, and thereby a “human development”?


Secondly, is an attainment of longer-age necessarily an indicative of a contented life and a mark of advancement? As our commonsense knowledge tells us, not really so! This brings to mind the maxim, “What matters is not how long you live but how well you live”. Furthermore, given the well-known fact of relatively longer age lived by those even isolated communities living in some inaccessible mountainous areas around the world, it would not be fair to attribute longevity solely to scientific advancement.
Thirdly, is the convention of attaching more value to physical existence than natural physical perishing indeed based on a clear and sound understanding of the latter? And, how long can we really extend our physical existence? Is that extension as such a significant matter in the eyes of the larger cosmic order? Isn’t it logical to presume in so much as there exists a purpose in physical existence, there, too, must be a purpose in its opposite natural physical perishing?
Still, the most surprising part in UNDP’s discourse of “human development” is the proposition of formal ‘educational attainment’ as a proxy indicator of ‘knowledge’. Logically speaking, this invokes the questions: What do we mean by knowledge? Is formal educational attainment of any significance to gauge one’s endowment of true knowledge?


Of course, the answers to these questions all depend on our definition of knowledge which unfortunately varies considerably on the basis of philosophical variation. But, I presume many would agree with the simplest definition of knowledge as a process of attaining enlightenment or clear understanding of one’s true-self and one’s environment.

Even in light of this simplistic definition, we find formal education to be far less reliable indicator as to show the level of endowment of knowledge. Of course, it may help to a degree to determine one’s official qualification for a certain task or purpose.


Reliance on formal education as a measure of knowledge becomes ever more elusive especially when one thinks of knowledge in the sense of possessing a measure of wisdom to engage into the pursuant of truth and thereby contribute one’s share to the larger family of humanity. This is more so, given the pervasiveness of today’s highly specialized and skill-oriented behavioral education.


By the same token, the notion of adjusted per capita income as a proximate indicator of a decent standard of living implies not so much a person’s contentment and satisfaction in life as maintenance of physical existence.

In short, all the conceptual ambiguities and logical flaws rather partially shown above would make UNDP’s annual HDI report highly questionable. Admittedly, the problem of representing a phenomenon by its form or appearance rather than by its essence is not unique to HDI measurement; it is rather a problem commonly shared by many of the so-called scientific devices. Evidently, the root of this problem, as the renowned critical social scientist Herbert Marcuse argues, mainly emanates from the very philosophy of science which erroneously presumes the possibility of knowing the whole even with the exclusion of the essence of its constituting parts.

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