Third Conference on Measuring Human Progress

Human Development Report Office
Country or Region: 
United States

HDRO’s third conference on measuring human progress brought together some fifty participants from a range of sectors, including both the users and producers of statistical indicators, to discuss three broad questions:

  1. How can experience in measuring human development help inform the selection of indicators for the Post-2015 development framework?
  2. Can measures of subjective wellbeing inform future human development reports and measures?
  3. What new and emerging data sources might be considered to help strengthen the way in which the family of human development indices assesses key capabilities around the world?

Germany’s Ambassador to the UN, Heiko Thoms, and Khalid Malik, HDRO’s director, opened the conference and introduced Olav Kjorven, Special Adviser to the UNDP Administrator on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Olaf’s keynote set the stage for the next 2 days, noting how timely the conference was given the growing importance of data and measurement in the global conversation around the post-2015 goals

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The first session brought together two professors – Janet Gornick and Miles Corak – together with Anuradha Seth from UNDP. Janet’s presentation, on the Luxembourg Income Study, showed both the benefits and challenges that can arise from creating a harmonized international data set. Anuradha noted the importance of recognizing inequality and in the post-2015 development goals and described ways in which it might feature in the goals. And Miles talked about different types of inequality and how each might – or might not – relate to public policy. Equality of opportunity was, he argued, a more legitimate goal in many societies than equality of outcomes.

A lively Q&A session, chaired by Enrico Giovannini, discussed the measurement agenda and looked at a number of ideas including the importance of understanding risk and resilience, and trying to ensure that human capital is valued appropriately in the System of National Accounts. The notion of social “tipping points” (extreme inequalities that could lead to societal collapse) and how to calculate them was also mentioned.

The panelists discussed the importance of understanding the many gender gaps around the world, and the lack of data for doing so. Panelists looked at many areas including the unequal distribution of child care (a major constraint to women’s participation in the labour market) and patterns of female participation in the labour market.

Discussion, chaired by John Hammock touched on the Post-2015 agenda. Speakers felt it was important to include a stand-alone goal on gender equality and also mainstream gender equality in all goals. It was also important capture both levels and gaps, lest ‘equalizing downward’ was interpreted as progress in bridging gender gaps. A number of other suggestions were made including providing a platform for gender data at community level and developing guidelines for data collection in non-traditional areas such as violence against women.

This session’s panel comprised researchers and practitioners interested in measuring multidimensional poverty. Gonzalo pointed out that in Mexico the MPI had become an important data series for policy making and had been embraced by the Congress. Indeed, as Sabina explained, there was a growing demand worldwide from governments to collect MPI data, especial in middle income countries, and growing interest too in using the indicator in the Sustainable Development Goals as well. One reason was that there was often surprisingly little overlap between those in income based poverty and those multidimensionally poor. Koen presented Russian multidimensional data on poverty using 4 dimensions - expenditures, health, housing and unemployment – weighted using life satisfaction data which he argued was more acceptable than estimating weights in other ways.

Discussion, chaired by GIZ’s Joern Geisselmann, considered how best to ensure that internationally comparable data on deprivations are frequently collected and how those measures could be communicated to and understood by policy makers.

The second day opened with a panel looking at happiness and human development.
Jon Hall argued that measures of life satisfaction provided a useful conceptual and statistical complement to more direct measures of human development like the HDI. Two official statisticians - Enrique Ordaz Lopez and Glenn Everett – described the work underway in their offices to measure subjective wellbeing. The new data was being used in many ways, some unexpected. For instance, domestic violence was now higher on the Mexican policy agenda after INEGI had demonstrated the toll it takes on people’s happiness. While in the UK, a leading property firm was using ONS data to consider wellbeing when designing major housing projects. John Helliwell introduced the different types of happiness (positive and negative affect and life satisfaction). He went on to discuss the importance of happiness for many areas of public policy from dealing with the aftermath of the global financial crisis to ways in which pro-happiness policies might help tackle global environmental challenges.

During the Q&A, chaired by Conal Smith panelists discussed whether happiness might have a place in the post 2015 goals: while a particular target for happiness might be unlikely, one could imagine a goal where governments commit to report annually on each nation’s subjective wellbeing. The important influence of social relationships on happiness was also discussed during a conversation on why inhabitants of poor villages might seem happier than wealthier city dwellers. Panelists stressed that relying on any single number alone for policy making (HDI, GDP or life satisfaction) would be shortsighted. But it is important to factor happiness into the set of measures used and social relationships are an important issue for urban policy making, as city dwellers frequently have a weaker social network than those in rural areas.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, joined the conference by video to lay out his vision for the sustainable development goals, which he argued should aim to provide a compelling narrative to motivate public action, to hold governments and business accountable, and to serve as a basis for the organization of knowledge and activism.

Prof. Sachs discussed what might be included in post-2015 goals. He recommended that: the economic goals include ending extreme poverty, providing decent jobs, and sustaining economic growth; the social goals include gender equality, human rights, reducing relative poverty, increasing education access and attainment, and health for all; and the environmental goals address agriculture and food, the urban environment, biodiversity conservation, climate change, and sustainable energy (although climate change and biodiversity are tackled in other international fora they should, he argued, be included in the SDGs to ensure the goals include all of the highest global priorities for sustainable development for the next 15 years). Global governance (including businesses and institutions) is another overarching issue that also needs to be addressed. He also argued that well-being should be measured directly by integrating subjective measures into SDGs and policy structures given the overwhelming evidence that much is gained from these indicators. He made a strong case for the SDGs to generally include much more timely, rigorous, and coordination data collection for management and feedback.

In response to a query about including risk indicators, Prof. Sachs commented that while a good idea, constructing the measures would require statistical models might be politically less acceptable than observable data. He also reminded the meeting that the Sustainable Development Solutions Network is holding a public consultation on its report on Indicators for Sustainable Development Goals.

The last session of the conference featured a panel of senior data users and producers.
Enrico Giovannini and Rashid Benmoktar, represented the user community. Claes Johansson Stefan Schweinfest and Nathan Wendt represented data producers. A rich set of discussions highlighted the growing demand for data and the expense of collecting it, the potential of new data sources (such as Big Data) to fill the gaps, and the role international agencies could play. Panelists were careful to stress the limitations of many new data sources: there were no silver bullets. The discussion, chaired by Hendrik van der Polwas wide ranging and noted that while a data revolution might be required, a data liberation – to make available a wealth of data currently locked up – would also be valuable. The Gallup World Poll survey was widely praised for its quality, but several people noted that it was prohibitively expensive for most users and urged more innovative approaches to ensuring that the data was affordable to users while recognizing the costs to Gallup in collecting it.

There was much food for thought. The first day of the conference highlighted the importance of aspects of development that ought to feature more prominently in the development narrative. The resilience of societies and their institutions for example, and the measurement of risk, are both important to the ways in which we measure and foster progress. But there were, as yet, no agreed measures to assess these vital facets of human development. The discussions had also reminded everyone of the perennial tension between simplicity and over-simplification. Policy makers and citizens require summary measures that communicate complex issues clearly. And yet summary measures run a risk of sending misleading signals. How best can we ensure the human development indices are used appropriately?

The second day’s discussion highlighted other important areas worthy of greater consideration in human development reports, particular social relationships (social networks, trust and support) and subjective wellbeing. Indeed, the two areas are closely related: the quality of people’s relationships with others has a major effect on their happiness and life satisfaction. Both areas are emerging as important domains for policy making and the growing number of countries running official surveys on subjective wellbeing data was likely to fuel both the use, and demand, for this data. Other data on perceptions is becoming increasingly important to policy makers as people ultimately behave according to how they perceive the world. How best can these notions be integrated into the set of measures used to understand human development?

These, and many other questions raised during the meeting, would be considered by HDRO over the coming weeks as we consider a future research agenda and the subject for the next human development report.

The Human Development Report Office acknowledges the support of the German Federal Government through the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.