UN HDI report not a stone tablet to be followed blindly

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The 2014 UNDP Human Development Report has raised a firestorm of protest from the Seychelles Government.
What is it?

The 2014 Human Development Report “Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience” was published on 24th July by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The latest Human Development Index (HDI) included in the report shows that levels in human development continue to rise, yet the pace has slowed for all regions and progress has been highly uneven.

Seychelles drops

The HDI has listed Seychelles as 71st in the human development ranking of countries, a drop of one point compared to last year. Seychelles’ Minister for Finance, Trade and Investment, Pierre Laporte, has led the charge against this drop. Minister Laporte attributed the issue to a change of methodology by UNDP as well as poorly collected data by the UN. Minister Laporte insisted that the information had indeed been provided but not incorporated by the UNDP.
I have examined the report and agree with the Government of Seychelles. There are several elements to the Report that I take issue with. These are changes in methodologies that Minister Laporte referred to, large swathes of missing data in the tables and the lack of pertinent environmental information.

Changes in methodology

The UNDP HDI has previously been criticized for its “changes in formula which can lead to severe misclassification in the categorization of ‘low’, ‘medium’, ‘high’ or ‘very high’ human development countries”. Indeed, this year’s report presents HDI values for 187 countries, and is the first index to use the latest International Comparison Program’s conversion rates of national currencies to purchasing power parity, released by the World Bank in May 2014.

A new Gender Development Index (GDI), which for the first time measures the gender gap in human development achievements has also been introduced in the 2014 report. The Report also introduces the idea of life cycle vulnerabilities, the sensitive points in life where shocks can have greater impact. While these new methods are useful and worthy of consideration, what happens is that the 2014 figures cannot be easily compared with those of previous years.

Mea Culpa

The UNDP itself has admitted that “Previous HDI values and rankings are retroactively recalculated using the same updated data sets and current methodologies, as presented in Table 2 of the Statistical Annex. The HDI rankings and values in the 2014 Human Development Report cannot therefore be compared directly to HDI rankings and values published in previous Human Development Reports.” My question to UNDP therefore is if that is so, why then try to rank countries at all because it would lead to discrepancies as has happened in the case of Seychelles.

Missing Data

If one looks at the Human Development Indices that have been used to calculate the ranking, one is astonished to find that there are huge blanks for Seychelles in the table that lists all countries with the criteria used. There are no values at all for Inequality-adjusted HDI, Coefficient of Human Inequality, Gender Inequality Index, Gender Development Index and Multidimensional Poverty Index, which are some of the main indices.

This perplexing gap is explained by UNDP in the Report as follows: “Not all indicators were available for all countries; caution should thus be used in cross-country comparisons. Where data are missing, indicator weights are adjusted to total 100 percent”. Since this is the case Seychelles cannot be compared to any other country. But more importantly if there is no data available for the key values what then is the point of even trying to rank countries.

Lack of environmental considerations:

As an environmental practitioner working in the sustainability field, I find it appalling that a UN report entitled “Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience” contains little or nothing on the environment. The entire UN system, particularly UNEP and UNDP have time and time again said that ecosystem services are key to reducing vulnerabilities and building resilience. In fact, for the top scientists working in the field of resilience, ecological considerations are paramount.

A report that purports to illuminate vulnerabilities and resilience without analyzing environmental services and climate change falls short of being useful to a vulnerable small island developing state like Seychelles which relies so much on wise management of the natural environment. The recent Ocean Index for example ranked Seychelles as the number one country in protecting oceans, which are so vital to our socio-economic fabric. The Ocean Index defines a healthy ocean as one that sustainably delivers a range of benefits to people both now and in the future.

Pro-action

The debacle with the HDI shows us many things. The most important thing to keep in mind is that international reports sometimes fall short of accurately measuring small countries like Seychelles. However, the lesson learned from this Report is that we must be proactive and not reactive. We must as a matter of urgency mop up our information gathering system. Not only is new data needed on a range of subjects, but analysis, and not only presentation of statistics, is exceedingly necessary for existing data. We should not wait for international organisations to inform us of our own development status. We should instead be holding, analysing and reporting on all these areas of importance to any nation,

Reprinted form The People, 31 July 2014

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