New Economic Indicators

By Ruth Walker. Ruth Walker is the Monitor's deputy editor. | The Christian Science Monitor, September 7, 1994 | Go to article overview

New Economic Indicators


Ruth Walker. Ruth Walker is the Monitor's deputy editor., The Christian Science Monitor


AT a time when the United Nations population conference in Cairo is getting world attention, it is worth considering issues not only of numbering the people but of valuing them properly.

This is not said to minimize the challenges that overpopulation presents. Indeed it is heartening to see the United States under President Clinton taking a more active role on population issues than it did under his immediate predecessors.

Rather this is said to invite attention to another UN activity, the Human Development Index (HDI), which is five years old this year. "We'd like to get the message across," says Inge Kaul, the German economist who serves as director of the Human Development Report Office, "that income alone is not the sum total of human development."

Per capita gross national product - or gross domestic product - is, despite its limits, widely used to compare the economic health of nations. But the real issue, Ms. Kaul suggests, is "how income and worth translate in human life."

The HDI is a composite figure. It takes into account income, adjusting for local cost-of-living differentials and recognizing that past a certain point, more money doesn't provide that much more quality of life. It also factors in educational attainments (literacy rates and mean years of schooling) and health measures: life expectancy and infant mortality.

Several countries of very modest means by traditional measures do quite well on the HDI; despite small incomes, their peoples' health and education are well tended. Sri Lanka, for example, has a per capita GNP of between $400 and $500, similar to that of Pakistan. But longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, and significantly higher literacy rates put Sri Lanka's HDI figure at 0. …

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