Is UN Human Development Index too simplistic to explain a mess like Zimbabwe's?

Jun 24, 2011

A blogger at the World Bank mentions that in 2010 Zimbabwe had the world's lowest Human Development Index, measured by a combination of life expectancy, schooling and income. Martin Ravallion then poses the question of how likely it is that each of these variables can be quickly improved to remove Zimbabwe from its 'lowest' HDI ranking. But as is often the case when trying to put numbers to describe complex situations, the figures may conceal as much as they reveal.

The statistics he references are not pretty, and Ravallion's central question is: what would Zimbabwe need to do to get its HDI up to the level of the DRC or better?

Zimbabwe has a life expectancy in 2010 of 47 years, the fourth lowest in the finds that to get Zimbabwe from the lowest HDI to that of the DRC (the country with the next lowest HDI) would require a life expectancy of 154 years!

...mean years of schooling in Zimbabwe in 2010 was 7.2 get up to the DRC’s HDI by higher schooling, Zimbabwe would need to get that number up to 41 years—six years short of Zimbabwe’s current life expectancy!

Zimbabweans would clearly have a much better chance of not having the world’s worst HDI by increasing their national income. I calculate that an income of $240 per person per year—about half way between Zimbabwe’s current income and that of the DRC—would be sufficient to bring Zimbabwe up to the DRC’s HDI, all other things equal. That is clearly much more feasible.

Zimbabweans have undergone a precipitous decline in their standard of living, particularly in about the last ten years. But there are aspects of the resulting low HDI that make recovery prospects quite different from the chances of, say the DRC moving up in the rankings.

For instance, before the political and economic problems that led to a very steep decline, Zimbabwe had excellent health care and education facilities, amongst the best in Africa. Because the decline was not due to war, the basic infrastructure of those once exemplary social systems remains in place, even if many of the personnel who manned it have emigrated or chosen to seek opportunities outside the professions for which they were trained.

While the DRC and all other African countries are nominally ahead of Zimbabwe in this regard, most of them do not have the health, educational and general infrastructure of 'development' that Zimbabwe still has, even though it is now very dilapidated. It would seem, therefore, that the prospects of moving up in HDI rankings; the potential, would be much higher for Zimbabwe than would be the case for the many countries that still have to build up the systems and infrastructure from scratch.

This potential does not seem to be included in Mattison's calculations, and is probably hard to factor in anyway. It must also be said that there is no guarantee that Zimbabwe will quickly solve the political problems that led to the decline in the first place. The longer the poor conditions remain, the lower the prospects of fairly rapid recovery.

A very high incidence of HIV/AIDS, one of the world's highest, accounts for the fairly rapid reduction of the life expectancy to 47 from a one-time high in the 60s. But Zimbabwe has also finally began to make substantial gains in reducing the HIV/AIDS rate, from a high of almost 30 percent in the late 1990s to today's reported 14,6 percent; still very high but a significant reduction. This will have a delayed but presumably quite marked effect on national life expectancy. The current low life expectancy is in turn the delayed result of the worst years of the HIV/AIDS rate. These relevant details that account for rapid changes in life expectancy (either way) do not seem to feature in Ravallion's projections of how long it would take for Zimbabwe to move up in HDI rankings.

Just since last year there has been a dramatic improvement in the school attendance situation, from a time in 2008/2009 when many schools had to shut down as the country hit rock bottom economically, with hyperinflation calculated in the millions of percent. The economic stabilisation since those days has led to most schools having opened again, though they operate under very difficult conditions. But the point is that the country's once widely-lauded educational system is on a recovery path whose full results are yet to show, and which would certainly not have been evident at the time the data that accounts for the 2010 HDI rankings was being compiled.

To arrest hyperinflation of its currency, Zimbabwe adopted a mix of foreign currencies including the US dollar and the South Africa Rand as its official legal tender. While that helped arrest decline and restore stability, the country is still at a level of very low economic productivity, so for the few who are formally employed (unemployment is said to be more than 90%), especially in the public sector, average salaries of less than $500 a month are very low compared to the cost of living.

But the official unemployment and salary figures don't mean a lot out of their explanatory contexts. During the hyperinflation phase salaries obviously became largely meaningless and everybody had to do many other things on the side to try to make ends meet. Many lost their jobs as companies closed, and many others found that they were better off doing this and that than waiting 30 days at a time for a salary that lost large value literally by the minute. The result is an 'informalisation' of the economy that transcends the misleading number of how many people are in salaried jobs.

The point is that the infomalisation means that much of the economy now functions in ways that are not easy to measure as in a largely formal economy. So, for instance, '90% unemployment' is not at all the same as saying 90% of the working-age population have no income. A much higher proportion of that income than before may come from people keeping backyard gardens and chicken coops, for example, even if they also hold salaried jobs (some more for the perks, like a car and paid health insurance or childrens' school fees, than for the low salaries.)
All these complex variables obviously help explain the situation in a much more holistic way that the HDI cannot.

None of this is to negate Ravallion's point that Zimbabwe's socio-economic condition is very low, even by the country's own previous standards. But it does serve to illustrate why figures like HDI are often so full of holes that they are not useful for anything other than the broadest of comparisons. And perhaps one of the biggest flaws of using just three narrowly, uncontextually defined variables as a predictor of a country's prospects is the fact that a lot of the measures of national 'quality of life' are not apparent in  the raw statistics.


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