One indicator to rule them all


Posted by on February 4, 2018  /  0 Comments

Many of the discussions at organizations such as ours that are driven by the need to influence policy through research, center on indicators. We need to be able to communicate quickly and effectively how things have changed for the better or for worse, ideally in comparison with benchmarks. The best way to do this is through an indicator. In academic settings, it is common to bemoan the incompleteness of various indicators, when those same academics are faced with the task of communicating their research to policy makers or the general public, they fall back on one or at most two indicators to tell their story.
One thing I say about indicators is that they are all imperfect. Perfection is impossible. What we must strive for is the best possible indicator for the purpose. What we must avoid is an indicator that is misleading.
So here, on the 70th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence, I was searching for the best possible indicator to tell the story of how people’s lives had been impacted by self-rule:

“People are the real wealth of a nation,” Haq wrote. “The basic objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives. This may appear to be a simple truth. But it is often forgotten in the immediate concern with the accumulation of commodities and financial wealth.”
However, the HDI which was devised in 1990 does not allow comparison between 1948 and now. Life expectancy is a cruder, but easier to understand, indicator that does.
A male child born in Sri Lanka in 1945-47 could expect to live 46.8 years. A female could expect to live 44.7 years, two years less. The life expectancy predictions in 2015 were 72 years for a male and 78 for a female (six years longer), according to the WHO.
Behind these huge increases are significant achievements in healthcare, housing, education and even working conditions. Obviously, life expectancy could not improve for women if many of them would die at childbirth like they did at the time of independence. If polio, malaria, filariasis and various infectious diseases had not been eliminated with considerable effort and if the housing stock had not been improved, it’s unlikely that that life expectancy for everyone would have gone up by this much. And without people’s incomes and education improving, they could not have stayed alive for that long.

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