Life and Death in South Asia

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ImageIn the film, Venus, an old and frail Peter O’Toole discovers the Greek goddess in the guise of his best friend’s niece. The ironic and good humored story explores the theme of the games played in a mutual seduction between the older man with experience, money and a nostalgic yearning for carnal desire and the young woman who soon finds out the power she wields and negotiates three kisses in return for a pair of earrings. In the final scene, wearing only one of his boots on a cold beach, O’Toole feels the caress of the sea’s salty foam with the sole of his foot and smiles. His face expresses the happiness of someone who knows the joys of being alive.

It is impossible to weigh up Peter O’Toole’s smile, measuring the degree of his happiness or comparing it to what you would feel if walking barefoot in the sand. But, the idea that his feelings can be measured as a metric has become fashionable, ever since the King of Bhutan decided that GDP fails to portray the well-being of his subjects and summoned a team to create the Gross National Happiness index.

A degree of skepticism guides my preference towards simpler measurements rather than more complicated ones. In comparing the well-being of two different countries, I like to take into account life expectancy at birth. I look with a grain of salt at international comparisons based on the percentage of the population who lives on “less than two dollars a day”. Why? Because I know how difficult it is to find an index of purchasing power parity that allows consumption measured in a local currency to be transformed into dollars. One simple change to this purchasing power parity index could turn, at the wave of a wand, millions of poor into nouveaux-riches.

In my opinion, where an acceptable Census of the population exists, life expectancy at birth is a first approach to measuring well being. The content of this indicator is enormously relevant, for life is the highest good and our capacity to survive depends on the society where we live: the quality of our food, our access to sanitation and health systems, as well as the absence of war and violence.

In the table below, you can see that women tend to live longer than men, but in Sri Lanka, that divergence is grossly exaggerated (seven years difference as opposed to two years difference on average for the other South Asian countries, except Afghanistan). It is conceivable that more men in Sri Lanka tend to die younger than women due to violent conflicts. The result is reflected in the disparity of the life expectancy between the two genders.

Life Expectancy at Birth (South Asia’s Countries, 2007) ,


  Male Female
Average in five countries
(Bangladesh, India, Nepal,
Maldives and Pakistan)
64 66
Sri Lanka 69 76

(Source: 2009 World Development Indicators)

Life expectancy at birth also reveals the poorest countries in the world. According to the UN, only 47 countries have a population with a life expectancy under 60 years, 42 of which are found in Africa. The five others are:  Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Laos and Papua New Guinea. It is estimated that the life expectancy in Afghanistan, in 2008, was less than 45 years.

The evolution of life expectancy also clarifies how developed a country is. The table below compares India and Japan. As the mortality rate for infants up to the age of 5 is high in India, a girl who manages to survive past this age has a much higher life expectancy than one who has just been born. In Japan, we see the opposite: where the probability of dying in the first few years of life is low, the life expectancy of a newborn is similar to that of a one year-old.

Life Expectancy and Child Mortality (India and Japan, 2007) 


  Life Expectancy at Birth
Infant Mortality Per 1,000 Births Under-5 Mortality Per 1,000
India 65 54 72
83 3 4

(Source: 2009 World Development Indicators)

To measure development in South Asia, I would like to know how many children reached the age of five because their families came to have access to basic health services and how many will reach maturity, because violence waned.  For, in order to walk barefoot on the beach and find happiness (as Peter O’Toole and his Venus did), one has to be alive.

Will South Asia choose life?



Eliana Cardoso

Former Acting Chief Economist

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