Published on Let's Talk Development

Can an index ever be a good measure of social inclusion?

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I really don’t like indices, particularly those that claim to measure what are termed “social issues”. And they seem to be everywhere. Ok, the Human Development Index did a lot to push countries to do more on health and education, and its rankings serve to pit countries in good competition with each other.  Single measures are also intuitive and easy for monitoring purposes.

Just to stop my initial train of thought here, I have two problems with indices that measure “well-being”: first, they are often weighted and the weights assigned to individual components expose the subjectivity of their creators.  If you think primary education is more important than reproductive health, and you assign weights that way, that’s what your index will pick up. 

Second, in a bid to make them comparable across countries, their creators make indices awfully generic - almost reductionist.  There’s no room for context specificity.  Even the HDI reduces “human development” to life expectancy at birth, schooling and gross national income per capita.  Both the problems I have with indices become really grave when you are trying to measure something as context-specific and as steeped in how people feel as is “social inclusion”.  So I’m always inclined to take my friend Jeff Hammer’s advice - “use indicators, not indices”!

Image​But what do I do when people ask me for a summary measure of social inclusion? Well, first I tell them I don’t like them.  If I’m pushed, I say look for a dashboard where you can construct your own measure based on the weights that you assign.  This reflects both the context you are operating in, and your framing of social inclusion or well-being.  The OECD’s Better Life Index does a really good job, but it’s limited to data-rich OECD countries.  The Multi-Dimensional Poverty Measure is another example of building a summary measure based on your context.

I have been mulling over the Social Progress Index, since the beta version came out in 2013. This “new” measure does two things that I like – first, it takes into account subjective views of citizens  (it’s not just how well your government or researchers think you are doing; it’s how well you think you’re doing).  Second, it does not include an economic measure (but you can easily plot the index against economic measures. The documents related to the Social Progress Index do this and show that countries that perform well on an aggregate economic measure don’t always do as well on social measures).  So, I just exposed my own subjectivity!

The Social Progress Index is a simple average of three dimensions of “social progress” – basic human needs, well-being and opportunity.  And each dimension has several indicators.  Of course, you may quibble with the terms, each of which is a contested concept in its own right. For example, I use this index to the advantage of our report, “Inclusion Matters: The Foundation for Shared Prosperity” because it is philosophically so aligned; I would say it is actually a good measure of “social inclusion”.

Social Indicators

There would be many who wouldn’t like the Social Progress Index.  It may be too touchy-feely for some. Others may ask: “what are you really measuring”?  Still others may say: “so what? What policy do I put in place?” Still others may say: “perception surveys that the Index uses are problematic – you don’t know what they are catching”. 

Agreed! But the detailed methodology report  (2MB .pdf) just seems to say – “here’s what we thought is important, here’s what we did and here’s how you can use it”.  It is well grounded in the history and philosophy of measuring well-being, which gives it a certain depth and takes us through the intellectual journey of the authors.

So, in all, the Social Progress Index helped me to move away from my (summary?) dislike of summary measures. But I wonder what you think. Do you like it or dislike it? Do you think it has too many indicators? Or would you add some others?

Meanwhile, join us for our next webinar on Social Inclusion on January 7– it’s on measurement! 


Maitreyi Bordia Das

Director, Trust Funds and Partner Relations, Development Finance (DFi)

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