The problems with using GDP as an indicator of the level of development of a country are well known and several alternative measures are in common use. Perhaps the best known is the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI), where countries are given an HDI of between 0 and 1. HDI is the average of three indices based on three sets of variables: (i) life expectancy at birth, (ii) education (a weighted average of (a) the mean years that a 25-year-old person or older has spent in school and (b) the number of years of schooling that a 5-year-old child is expected to have over their lifetime) and (iii) real gross national income (GNY) per capita, measured in US dollars at purchasing-power parity exchange rates (see Box 27.1 in Economics 8th edition for more details).
But although indicators such as this capture more elements of development than simple per-capita GNP or GNY, there are still serious shortcomings. A major problem is the lack of and inaccuracy of statistics, especially when applied to the rural subsistence and informal urban sectors. The problem is recognised and some countries are trying to address the problem (see the second article below), but the problem is huge. As Gates says:
It is clear to me that we need to devote greater resources to getting basic GDP numbers right. … National statistics offices across Africa need more support so that they can obtain and report timelier and more accurate data. Donor governments and international organisations such as the World Bank need to do more to help African authorities produce a clearer picture of their economies. And African policymakers need to be more consistent about demanding better statistics and using them to inform decisions.
Another problem is how you convert data into internationally comparable forms. For example, how are inflation, exchange rates, income distribution, the quality of health provision and education, etc. taken into account?
How GDP understates economic growth The Guardian, Bill Gates (8/5/13)
States’ GDP computation report out soon, says Nigeria statistics bureau Premium Times (Nigeria), Bassey Udo (9/5/13)
Michael Porter Presents New Alternative to GDP: The Social Progress Index (SPI) Triple Pundit, Raz Godelnik (13/4/13)
- By accessing the Human Development Index site, identify which countries have a much higher ranking by HDP than by per capita gross national income. Explain why.
- Why is expressing GNY in purchasing-power parity (PPP) terms likely to increase the GNY figures for the poorest countries?
- Explain the following quote from the Gates article: ‘I have long believed that GDP understates growth even in rich countries, where its measurement is quite sophisticated, because it is very difficult to compare the value of baskets of goods across different time periods’.
- Why is GNY per capita, even when expressed in PPP terms, likely to understate the level of development in subsistence economies?
- Explain whether the rate of growth of GNY per capita is likely to understate or overstate the rate of economic development of sub-Saharan African countries?
- Why are the challenges of calculating GDP or GNY particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa?