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Why It Is Difficult to Measure Development

Updated on June 29, 2016

Development is the process of improvement occurring over time, but the nature of this improvement can be economic, social, or a combination, e.g. the Human Development Index (HDI).

Measuring development is therefore difficult, as single measures can greatly mask weaknesses in other areas; United Arab Emirates has a relatively high gross domestic product (GDP), but a low HDI, due to human rights abuses and gender inequality, whilst the converse is true for Sri Lanka. Therefore, a combination has to be used for a more accurate depiction, yet further difficulty arises since the choice of included data, and the weighting given to each measure, is subjective.

Furthermore, many social development indicators are qualitative, e.g. "general happiness", and are therefore subjective.

Economic and social development indicators for four selected countries.
Economic and social development indicators for four selected countries. | Source

The image above illustrates that the ranking of countries changes dramatically depending on the measure. The system of simply ranking countries, whilst providing a simplistic global overview, gives no credit to the least developed nations for greatly improving living standards, if they only rise a few places in the rankings, or not at all.

Some measures, such as energy consumption per capita, may not be considered as completely relevant to development; it could be argued that a truly developed country is able to achieve more productivity with less energy, or has a less detrimental effect on the environment. This particular measurement makes no distinction between use of fossil fuels versus renewable energy sources, and does not reflect levels of energy security, which could be considered as an equally important development indicator, in which the USA would certainly not be ranked first.

Which indicator shown is the best overall measurement?

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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 20 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Interesting concepts. I like attempts at using objective criteria to gauge subjective matters.