26 November 2015

Wrong Questions. Wrong Answers. Wrong Policies.

Samuel writes*

In 2009, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and a team of economists established that we need to measure ‘quality of life,’ given the limitations of measures such as GDP and HDI. ‘Quality of life’ should be partially subjective. They suggested that surveys are conducted, focusing on people’s evaluations of their life, and their prevailing emotions. Ideally, after aggregating with other approaches, they would end up with a number: your ‘quality of life.’ We can use an example to investigate their approach.

Take a ‘strict’ Buddhist village in Myanmar. The village could be based around a temple. The village would only trade where necessary and could strive towards self-sufficiency, consuming only basic foods. Due to many monks, unemployment would be very high. Villagers would also need to travel for education or health services. We would conclude that the village’s GDP/capita is exceptionally low, due to lack of production. IHDI would be low due to lack of education opportunities and health provisions. Here, Stiglitz et al.’s ‘quality of life measure’ should extrapolate on what GDP overlooks.

Say, hypothetically, villagers are asked ‘how would you evaluate your personal achievements,’ with the options ‘v. high, high, moderately, low, v. low.’ A Buddhist could be more inclined to answer low, due to ontological disagreements with ‘personal’ achievements. The same findings could exist for relationships and occupations. Buddhist villagers could also, due to a low intensity lifestyle, be much less likely to experience very positive emotions. Due to low life evaluations, simplistic goods and a lack of positive emotions, we would conclude that the village had an exceptionally low quality of life. The village would be in dire need of development.

However, a contextual analysis of the village, investigating both the discourse and culture, could show contentedness. More importantly, it could show different development needs, such as better transport to hospitals in other villages, which would potentially not affect ‘quality of life’ responses. The problem is not, necessarily, that Stiglitz et al. picked the wrong measure for quality of life; the problem is broader. Through quantitative research, we cannot understand development. Development needs rich contextual understanding, and this cannot be either numerically coded or aggregated. When we aggregate and code, we lose valuable information about what development is, what it means to different communities and how aid can be provided. Stiglitz et al. establish that the subjective dimension is important, but they use closed-ended questions; only open-ended questions could have provided us with useful information about the village.

Quantitative measures are attractive for policymakers for the same reason that they are flawed: they make the complex, simplistic. And, potentially, global development is not a simplistic, aggregate-able concept. It may be time to consider more mainstream macro-qualitative research, at least in the form of triangulation, in development studies.

Bottom Line: We are trying to condense and simplify development for policymakers. However, in most cases development is not simple, nor can it be aggregated. Oversimplification results in improper measures and improper measures result in striving for the wrong goals, with the wrong policies.
* Please comment on these posts from my microeconomics / growth & development economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.


  1. I do agree that we often try to simplify development for policymakers, but I would like to point out that also if we would not simplify, (however that would look like) we have no proof if development aid will become more successful. Until now, development aid has been mainly disappointing.
    This makes me think that sometimes it would be better to leave states try to develop themselves. I believe this goes much in line saying that developing countries are like developed countries at an earlier stage (as some academics argue, right?).
    Another interesting method I also mentioned in my blog post is about development aid by simply giving poor people money. Is this not the perfect way to fight poverty, at least by definition? Since poverty is measured by how many people live < 1 dollar a day, giving these people only one additional dollar would in theory eliminate poverty. I am not saying that this is the solution to all the problems that come with poverty, but I think its an interesting thought.
    Such development aid has been so far however relatively successful.

  2. Samuel, while I very much value your insight that culture can even affect the way we perceive even seemingly neutral terms like "achievement" or "positive emotion", I cannot help but wonder:

    1. How illustrative is the case of the Buddhist village for the situation of most societies in need of development? Most people targeted by development programs have families to take care of, want to get jobs and would rather chase achievements even if they are aware that there is a chance those could never became reality and all left would be a life spent in suffering caused by the chasing itself. Buddhists, on the other hand, prefer to avoid suffering by refusing to chase, by modifying their wants (the second principle). Development professionals could then just leave the box for the Buddhist village unchecked and instead aim development at the people who ask for it. However, you are right that through qualitative research would be required in order to determine which people want to chase wants and which don't.

    2. How many young people join these communities because they have no choice, and if given the choice, would rather have families and jobs? I'm not sure I'm confortable with the idea that if the spiritual beliefs of the society someone lives in accept and even cherish poverty, automatically we should assume everyone there would reject the chance to do something else.

    3. Even if we accept that pretty much every person in that village is content to be there, and thus development interventions would be "violent" to the very structures that give meaning to human lives (in the sense of Wendy Harcourt 2004), why would an assessment of their quality of life be less possible? What if you include goals such as feeling of purposefulness and capacity to pursue enlightenment in the assessment? People would vary on that scale, and we could know which community offers a better quality of life according to what they themselves consider important.

    Thank you for your post and best of luck with the final essay on this topic! I'm sure it must be a great read!


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