Do Quantitative Indicators Make Qualitative Meaning?: Analysis of World Development Indicators, Human Development Indicators, and Happy Planet Indicators

Tun Myint, Department of Political Science, Carleton College
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This material was originally developed by the QuIRK at Carleton College
as part of its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


In this assignment, a group of four to five students will select one country that has been ranked in the World Development Indicators of the World Bank, the Human Development Indicators of the United Nations Development Program, and the Happy Planet Indicator of the New Economic Foundation. Using the selected country's political, social, and economic statistics, each group will assess the methodology and validity of the measurements of WDI, HDI, and HPI indicators for the country. Students will compare and contrast the measurement methods, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each indicator, and propose recommendations to improve these indicators.

Learning Goals

  1. To understand macro-level quantitative thinking and reasoning in approaches to development.
  2. To assess the methods of measurement and ranking of countries in WDI, HDI, and HPI.
  3. To prepare for the main assignment of this course which requires understanding and the use of quantitative evidence, reasoning, and critical thinking in writing.

Context for Use

This assignment is appropriate for a group project for quantitative critical thinking and reasoning. This is for a 300-level seminar at Carleton College. This assignment is designed to introduce a multi-disciplinary approach in quantitative reasoning especially for the issues of development at the macro (namely at the national or country) level. Students with different backgrounds in terms of majors and academic class conduct a collaborative assessment and understanding of the quantitative indicators. Students are set up to critically examine the use of ranking indicators which are used to represent basic assessment of the quality of institutions such as countries and schools. This exercise will not only introduce multidisciplinary approach to quantitative reasoning but will also train students to be critical of number-oriented indicators and rankings especially in approaches to development.

Description and Teaching Materials

A group of students will select a country of interest to assess different approaches and methods of measuring World Development Indicators by the World Bank, the Human Development Indicators by the United Nations Development Program, and the Happy Planet Indicators by the New Economic Foundation. The selected country has to be one ranked by the three indexes to be able to analyze and compare the methodology of each ranking. Students will select five to seven key statistics out of several statistics used by each indicator for the selected country. Then each group will: (1) analyze the strength and weakness of each method of measuring the indicators by the statistics it uses; (2) analyze the extent to which the indicator reflects the country's realistic social economic conditions based on students' independent research of the country; (3) synthesize and issue recommendations to improve measurement of indicators at the national level. Each group will present their analysis and findings to the class during the Week 6 after the mid-term break.


Teaching Notes and Tips

In preparing students to critically review three indicators, I assign reading materials that address theoretical and philosophical foundation of development as measured in these indicators. These readings will be useful to assess the methodology and the validity of indicators. In addition, students will be required to conduct research to collect economic, political, and social statistics that are directly linked to statistics used for each of three indicators by the World Bank, UNDP, and NEF respectively. For instance, if UNDP uses government expenditure for health care per capita as one of the statistics for measuring the level of development of a country, students are required to conduct research to verify that statistic for selected country.


Group presentations will be evaluated based on how well each group performs:
  1. Identification of the theoretical strength and weakness of each method of measuring the indicators;
  2. The analysis of the extent to which indicators reflect the country's realistic social economic conditions based on students' research on economic, political and social statistics of the country;
  3. The quality of synthesis and recommendation to improve measurement of indicators.

References and Resources

Related Readings for this Assignment:

Part 2: "The Traps" (Ch. 2,3,4,5) in Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done about It,Oxford University Press, 2007.

Ch. 2,3,6, and 11 in Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom,Anchor Books, 2000.

Elizabeth A. Stanton, "The Human Development Index: A History," Working Paper Series No. 127, The Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts, 2007.