What Are the Criticisms of the Human Development Index (HDI)?

The Human Development Index (HDI) assigns numerical values to different countries as a measure of human prosperity. These values are derived by measuring levels of education, standard of living, and life expectancy. Countries with higher scores on the index are said to be better developed than those with lower scores.

The system is designed to help determine strategies for improving living conditions for people around the world. HDI values are often influential in conjunction with gross domestic product (GDP) and can affect a nation's fiscal and public policy. However, some critics argue that these measures are flawed and do not create an accurate picture of prosperity.

Key Takeaways

  • The Human Development Index (HDI) is a statistic the United Nations developed and compiled to measure various countries' levels of social and economic development. 
  • HDI values are influential and can affect the fiscal and public policy of a nation.
  • Critics argue that the HDI's measurements are flawed and do not create an accurate picture of prosperity.

How the Human Development Index (HDI) Is Valued

The HDI was developed by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and eventually launched in 1990.

The goal was to measure development beyond just focusing on how much money people have. The HDI is calculated as the geometric mean of the following:

  • The health factor is assessed by life expectancy at birth.
  • The standard of living factor is assessed by gross national income (GNI) per capita.
  • The education factor is assessed by the mean years of schooling for adults and the expected years of schooling for children of school entering age.

Criticism of the Human Development Index (HDI)

Critics argue that the HDI assigns weights to certain factors that are equal tradeoffs when these measurements may not always be equally valuable. For example, countries could achieve the same HDI through different combinations of life expectancy and GNI per capita. This would imply that a person's life expectancy has an economic value.

An additional year of life would add to the GNI and thus be different in countries with different GNI per capita.

It also correlates factors that are more common in developed economies. For example, a higher level of education would tend to lead to higher GNI per capita. Critics argue the benefit or lack thereof of including two highly correlated values when perhaps one would be a better indicator of a country's well-being.

The HDI also fails to take into account factors such as inequality, poverty, and gender disparity. A country with a high value for GNI per capita would indicate a developed country, but what if that GNI is reached by marginalizing certain genders or ethnic classes? And what if that GNI is achieved by a small percentage of the population that is wealthy and, therefore, ignores the poor?

Furthermore, the values of the factors that make up the HDI are bound between 0 and 1. This means that certain countries that already have high GNIs, for example, have little room to improve in terms of GNI score even if their GNI continues to grow and improve. This same parameter affects the logic of the life expectancy score.

Why Is the Human Development Index (HDI) Controversial?

The HDI is controversial because it is highly influential yet considered to be deeply flawed. The United Nations itself even admits that the HDI is not “a comprehensive measure of human development” and that the index is slow to reflect recent policy changes and improvements to the lives of a nation’s citizens.

What Are the Biggest Criticisms of the HDI?

The HDI was designed to measure development not just in terms of how much money people have but also in terms of education and length of life. The problem is not everyone is happy about the choice of indicators nor the way they are aggregated.

What Are the Four Indicators of the Human Development Index (HDI)?

The HDI focuses on the following four factors: mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling, life expectancy at birth, and gross national income (GNI) per capita. 

The Bottom Line

The HDI is designed to consider other factors besides wealth, allowing a multifaceted examination of global prosperity and emerging market nations. However, the weaknesses of this measurement lead some critics to challenge its practicality for use in establishing foreign policy. This measurement does not sufficiently capture other factors that influence prosperity either.

Article Sources
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  1. United Nations. "Human Development Index (HDI)."

  2. United Nations. "What is Human Development?"

  3. United Nations. "Frequently Asked Questions—Human Development Index."

  4. United Nations. "The Human Development Index—What It Is and What It Is Not."

  5. United Nations. "Technical Notes."

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