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Bottom Rail on Top: The Shifting Sands of Sustainable Development Indicators as Tools to Assess Progress

Morse, Stephen
Sustainability 2013 v.5 no.6 pp. 2421-2441
data collection, education, gross domestic product, human development, longevity, per-capita income, sustainable development
The Human Development Index (HDI) is often employed to capture some of the more social concerns in sustainable development at the scale of the nation-state. The HDI is founded on three components; life expectancy, education and income per capita. To avoid a dominance of the income component, proxied by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita per annum, it has been capped at a maximum level and transformed. Two methods for transforming the GDP/capita have been employed; the Atkinson transformation (1991 to 1998) and the Logarithmic transformation (all other years). The paper explores the impact that these transformations have had on the HDI rankings of 167 countries, by comparing the rank across two periods; 1991 to 1998 and 1999 to 2009. Results suggest that for the 167 countries in the dataset, the majority (65%) showed a high resilience to the transformations. For these countries, the use of the two alternatives does not alter the difference seen in the original ranking between the two periods. A significant proportion of countries had a medium (18%) and low (17%) resilience to the methodology for handling GDP/capita. For those countries the choice of methodology does matter in terms of their ranking, with some doing better and others worse relative to the original ranking. Consistency in methodology is desirable in order to avoid such misrepresentations but so is some flexibility to allow for new knowledge and experience. One can also question the value of the league table style of presentation so often employed with sustainable development indices given that change in rank for at least some countries is so vulnerable to shifts in methodology.