I’m no apologist for the Cuban government, but it’s noteworthy that despite its much lower GDP per capita, Cuba keeps beating much richer countries in social and environmental league tables drawn up by some highly respectable NGOs. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Oxfam America contrasted the carnage in New Orleans with Cuba’s extraordinarily effective disaster response. Then the Worldwide Fund for Nature’s 2006 Living Planet report identified Cuba as the only country that achieved high levels of human development while living within its environmental footprint. Now Save the Children UK has developed a new Child Development Index (CDI) and sure enough, there is Cuba at number 20, the highest placed developing country and three slots above the USA.
Launched today, the CDI builds on the UNDP’s work on the Human Development Index (indeed Terry McKinley, formerly of the UNDP’s International Poverty Centre and now based at SOAS in London, was involved in both). It combines three indices of child deprivation: non-enrolment rates in primary school, moderate or severe malnutrition and infant mortality to give countries an overall score. Of the 137 countries with reliable data, Japan comes top, Niger comes bottom, So what did all this number crunching reveal? In a seminar on Tuesday, SCF UK’s head of policy David Mepham gave his three headline findings as:
1. Nutrition is a massively neglected issue in development: progress on malnutrition is slower than on the other two indicators, malnutrition accounts for 3.5 of the 9.2 million child deaths every year, and some countries perform worse on child nutrition than their GDP per capita would suggest. India for example has child malnutrition rates approaching one child in every two.
2. Growth is not enough: growth is a very blunt instrument for improving children’s wellbeing (back to Cuba v US again)
3. Equity matters: issues of rights, power, discrimination and exclusion are crucial in understanding children’s wellbeing (or lack of it).
The index, which comes along with a nice interactive map on the website, could become a very useful addition to the range of measures of development. So far, so good, but I think SCF could have gone further in two areas: firstly, it would have been interesting to make an explicit comparison between country performance on child development, compared to its ranking in the Human Development Index or GDP per capita league table, to assess which countries are particularly child (un)friendly. Cuba, for example, is only number 51 in the HDI league table, presumably reflecting its lack of economic dynamism. But what other patterns emerge?
Secondly, it could have tried to include measures of inequality, or even trickier issues such as children’s voice, agency and enjoyment of rights. These are harder to measure, but figure prominently in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guides SCF’s work. Of course, adding equity would have meant Cuba ended up even further in front of the USA!
Which brings me back to the dangers of an excessive focus on indicators. I’ve agonised about this before on the blog, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, I’ll end with a joke: One night a policeman saw a macroeconomist bent double scouring the gutter beneath a street light. He asked him if he had lost something. The economist pointed to a spot a hundred yards down the road and said, “I lost my keys over there in the alley.” Unsurprisingly, the policeman asked him why he was looking for them under the street lamp. “Because this is where the light is,” explained the economist. For light, read data – its availability draws us inexorably away from the keys and towards the streetlamp like (to mix a metaphor) moths to a flame. But what if those were the keys to development we were looking for?