What the Human Development Index misses

Date: November 8, 2010
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Monrovia, Liberia. In grade ten my teacher reprimanded me in class for suggesting that in Canada we had people, aboriginal people primarily, who lived in developing world conditions. Third world was the term used then.

I had spent much of the previous summer camping and windsurfing in an area on the west coast accessed only by many hours of driving on gravel logging roads. Often rain-scarred and pot-holed, if you saw a logging truck approaching you had to swerve your car into the ditch to avoid a collision.

In the town near the lake we stayed at, life seemed inexplicably hard.

Relatively wealthy in some ways (the local native Band owned a Sea-Doo), it was a community with few jobs and few services. Many of the adults in this town were survivors of the residential school system, a government policy for much of the twentieth century that saw native children taken from their parents, their culture beaten out of them by priests and nuns. They were often sexually and physically abused.

Unsurprisingly this town had many social problems. Although it was a dry town (no alcohol sold), alcoholism was rampant and child abuse common. Life in Canada’s native communities can be hard: Infant mortality is one and a half times the Canadian average, and the life expectancy significantly less. According to Health Canada, approximately one quarter of all water systems on reserves are a high risk to human health.

It was also at this time in Vancouver, the city where I lived, that women, predominantly native, often prostitutes, were disappearing at an alarming rate with little official response. The police ignored it, as did the press. Only recently have they convicted anyone, a serial killer responsible for many of the cases, but not all.

My teacher was angry at me. “You can’t compare poverty in Canada to the Third World,” she said. “Any Canadian’s life is better than that. You don’t understand how privileged we are.”

I sheepishly backed down.

It was months later when I read in the newspaper that according to a study done by Canada’s Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs, in fact, life in Canadian first nations communities (native, aboriginal) when analysed by the criteria of the UN’s Human Development Index ranked somewhere in between Thailand and Bulgaria, sixty third in the world.

The Human Development Index is an annual United Nations report that ranks countries by three factors: life expectancy, education (adult literacy and gross enrolment), and standard of living (purchasing power parity, income). Its stated purpose is to get beyond GDP in measuring development.

What it doesn’t do, however, is factor in gender inequality or income inequality. This means a country like Canada, with minority populations living in very poor conditions will perennially be in the top ten while South Africa, with a large minority population that lives much like wealthy Canadians is near the bottom.

The 2010 report comes out today. A country that will surely rank right near the bottom as it has for many years is Liberia. It also happens to be where I’m writing from, my new home for the next while and a remarkably difficult place for the majority of its more than 3 million inhabitants.

Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected woman president, was recently honoured by the UN for her leadership around the third millennium development goal to promote gender equality and empower women. Under her watch, the ratio of female to male enrolment in primary and secondary schools has increased from 72% in 2000 to 90% in 2009 at the primary level and 71 to 75% at the secondary level.

As significant as it is, this decrease in inequality doesn’t factor into the human development index ranking.
Last week I spent a day in an area called Zimbabwe, a township north of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, speaking with some of its residents.

Many of the young men here were child combatants during the civil war and have almost no hope of finding jobs in the current economy. Of the women I met, many work as prostitutes to get by.

Government services here are minimal. Community chairman, Joseph Mulbah, told me the area is under-served by public education and almost devoid of police. Law and order is kept by a local vigilante organisation and sickness like Malaria and Typhoid is rampant. Housing consists of small rooms made from tin sheets and salvaged bricks. It is fair to say that the residents here have not seen any benefit from the development that they hear is happening in the country.

The jobs that are being created, mostly in government, according to Mulbah, are being given to returnees who spent the war years in America and are taking the money they make here out of the country; tax money, he says, that should be spent on development in communities like his.

In a way, my grade ten teacher was correct. When judged by things like infrastructure and income, the lives of the worst-off in Canada are measurably better than the worst-off in a country like Liberia. A simple ranking like the Human Development Index will never be able to reflect the complexity of inequality within countries.

Likewise it can never reflect the many narratives and paths of the individuals struggling to better themselves and others. It is only one tool among many, and one we should always use in conjunction with many other measurements.

Aaron Leaf is a Canadian journalist currently working in Liberia with Journalists for Human Rights (jhr). This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.


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