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The right questions

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CEBU CITY — “Does conventional economics ask the right questions?”, two brilliant students asked on a chilly 1953 autumn evening at Cambridge University. “Can it offer something for poor countries, like Pakistan or India?” (Or the Philippines?)

In 2011, we know that this Cambridge chat led to crafting of the Human Development Index. Today, the HDI yardstick tracks human development across countries. This measure underpins UNDP’s annual Human Development Report.

HDIs go beyond the old one-dimensional gross national product. GNPs divide national wealth by population. This crude yardstick was useful. But it also smudged stark disparities. GNP bracketed Imelda Marcos with the diamond tiara with the beggar in rubber flip-flops.

The GNP doesn’t capture human options or freedoms either. So, “learn conventional economics but don’t use it much,” the young Pakistani student Mahbubul Haq said. “Who wants to know what sets the price of toothpaste? But it helps answer the right questions.”

Right questions were on education, health, security, aspirations even, agreed the equally young Indian student Amartya Sen. ”We need a measure that is not as blind to social aspects as GNP is.”

There was something of the Human Development Report already then, Sen recalled at the New York 1998 memorial rites for Haq. Sen won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences that year. After leaving Yale University, Haq amplified his “human development theory” at the World Bank and UN.

Sen and Haq, at UNDP, led a team of scientists to produce the maiden Human Development Report in 1990. “People are the real wealth of a nation,”their lead sentence read.

The 20th anniversary issue of the HDR reiterates that theme.

Annual reports now factor into HDI tables life expectancy, literacy, and incomes. This measurement innovation continues. Three new gauges — extreme deprivation, gender disparities, and inequalities — are tacked into this year’s edition.

Tables have been buttressed. Aside from standard demographic statistics, one finds, in this new report, yardsticks on sustainability and vulnerability; access to information technology; human security, civic and community well being, even perceptions on individual well-being.

Each report continues to marshal data on key issues. The HDR in 1998 analyzed Globalization with a Human Face. In 2002, the focus was on Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World. A year later, Millennium Development Goals were centerpiece in A Compact among Nations to End Human Poverty.

The global water crisis and international migration came under scrutiny in 2008 and 2009.

The in-between years all span off more than 600 national HDRs. All were researched, written, and published in individual countries.

A biennial publication, the Philippine Human Development Report, first came off the press in 1994.

Spearheaded by economists like Solita Monsod and Arsenio Balisacan, Filipino scientists who have churned out seven biennial HDRs since.

At a Rio de Janeiro conference, Philippine HDRs were cited for excellence in design, innovative use of human development measurement tools, as well as participation and policy impact.

From it’s initial computation of HDIs for each of the Philippine regions, PHDRs have covered festering national concerns.

The 1997 report on gender documented significant gains by women, in education, jobs, and elections. At century’s turn, the report zeroed in on the sharp decline in quality of Philippine education and outlined reforms. Work and Well Being and Human Security were themes for 2002 and 2005.

The report before 2010’s In Search for a Human Face concentrated on how institutions and politics impact on human development. ”The Ombudsman’s record in disposition of cases and conviction is far from sterling,” the 2009 study said. “(It) has been described as an agency where cases ‘just lie there and they die there…It’s credibility dropped to a low level.”

PHDR breaks down lumps of data. Analysis by provinces revealed, for example, that La Union now has the longest life expectancy at 74.6 years. Life is “nasty, brutish, and short” in Tawi-Tawi at 53.4 years.

They also compare HDIs between countries and provinces. Azerbijan on one end, and Paraguay on the other, for instance, sandwich Batanes, Laguna, Bataan, Batangas, La Union, and Pampanga.

Despite modest incomes, some countries made great gains in health, life expectancy, education, and overall living standrads, writes UNDP Adminstrator Helen Clark.

In sharp contrast, some countries with strong economic performance lagged.

Always wedged into less-than-vigorous performance, the Philippines slumped from its No.99 slot in overall HDI index in 2005 to No. 97 today. Almost a quarter of Filipinos ( 24% ) lack access to improved sanitation. Many feel severe deprivation in schooling (13%), health (14%), and living standards. We’re better off than Cambodians, but lagging behind Malaysians.

“On one crucial point, the evidence is compelling,” Clark adds. “Improvements are never automatic. (They) require political will, courageous leadership, and continuing commitment of the international community.”

If the past offers any lesson, it is to put people at the center of development, the new HDR says. “Well-being is about much more than money. It is about enabling people to be active participants in change, and ensuring that current achievements are not made at the expense of future generations.”

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