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Finding consensus on how to measure progress against poverty and inequity

(Credit: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation)

By Barbara Thomas

It may sound like a simple question: Are we making progress against poverty and other forms of inequity? Or to put it in academic wonk lingo: Are the indicators of development trending up, down or going nowhere?

Surprisingly, perhaps, for many even in the humanitarian or development community, this turns out to not be so simple. Yes, at a global level and based on the way we define extreme poverty (living on less than $2 per day), the numbers of people suffering such poverty have greatly declined. But is income the best measure? How about income inequality? What about health care, shelter, food or the rights of girls and women in a community? What about other forms of equity? What about happiness? Peace? Education levels?

It turns out there are lots of different ways to measure development, to measure progress against poverty and disenfranchisement. And proponents of one yardstick don’t always agree with another’s metrics.

“In 2016, there’s a mania for metrics,’’ said Kristen Lewis of Measure of America, a nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative of the Social Science Research Council.

Donors, funders and agencies investing in these humanitarian projects no longer are satisfied with just “doing the right thing” by responding to a crisis or the direct need. They want data, evidence, to show that the response is effective, or can be.

“I’m a big believer in the power of index,’’ said Edmund J. Cain, vice president of grants programs for the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which also provides funding to Humanosphere.

The goal, Cain said, of much of this work is to trigger discussions among governments, foundations and philanthropic organizations that lead to more consensus, or coherence anyway, on how we should measure progress in this highly varied endeavor.

Cain was the first director of the U.N. Development Program’s (UNDP) Emergency Response Division from 1995 to 1998. Previously, as a U.N. resident coordinator, he had a front-row seat into the birthing process of the Human Development Index – the first such index – and has been a fan ever since. With proper information, governments can be pushed to change, philanthropic agencies can more accurately target their money, and social change can be better measured. Decades ago, Cain was able to urge the Turkish government leadership to make significant changes as the result of these measurements.


(Credit: Human Development Report Office/U.N.)

For the first step in this ambitious project aimed at coordinating these humanitarian yardsticks, the Hilton Foundation and UCLA hosted the Global Indicators Conference last month in Los Angeles. It was an unusual gathering of a dozen or so of the world’s most esteemed strategists, statisticians and social scientists. The goal: to brainstorm how each of these guests’ institutions measure poverty so as not to “reinvent the wheel’’ of measurements.

The impetus for doing this now: The United Nations General Assembly’s unanimous approval of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of its effort to eradicate global poverty by 2030. The goals cover a wide range, including everything from “ending poverty in all its forms everywhere” to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.”


(Credit: United Nations)

Some, including the Gates Foundation, have criticized the SDG approach as too complex, with too many goals and being difficult to evaluate. Others, like the U.N.’s point person on the SDGs, Amina Mohammed, contend that the SDGs reflect the complexity involved with truly reducing poverty and suffering.

At the Global Indicators Conference, a collegial atmosphere allowed for frank exchanges and criticisms without the glare of media. The lively discussion asked many questions: What’s the best way to measure poverty? How about measuring a program’s success? What are the best indicators, and where should philanthropists, organizations and governments best spend their money? Are different data sources measuring the same thing and wasting valuable time and resources?

Humanosphere was allowed into the discussion and we agreed to abide by the meeting’s use of Chatham House Rule — “Participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.’’ Any quote was approved by the source.

The Human Development Index – the original global tool – was developed in 1990 to measure the quality of life through life expectancy, the length of education, and per capita income. But lately, there have been more and more indices, some of them quite confusing and frustratingly unscientific as cities declare themselves “Most Livable City’’ using random measures such as weather and commute time.

Making sense of key information is a big part of the success of the new goals. The SDGs are simple to articulate but quite often difficult to execute. Take Goal 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Dig deep and you’ll find a thoughtful, sophisticated road map in the formal SDG document, including the proper functioning of commodity markets and derivatives, and a sharing of information to prevent “extreme food price volatility.” To move populations from poverty there must be safe and clean oceans, well-maintained ecosystems, affordable, reliable clean water, access to health care, equal pay between women and men, and access to quality education.

Some issues can’t wait until 2030, especially childhood stunting brought on by malnutrition. By some estimates, as many as 32 percent of children around the world are undersized and undernourished.

“2030 is a long way away for someone who is 4 years old and affected by stunting,’’ said Steve Commins, associate director for Global Public Affairs and lecturer in urban planning at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA. Commins worked for seven years as the senior human development specialist in the Human Development Network at the World Bank and was a member of the World Development Report 2004 team.

There was much eagerness in the room for data to be accurate and current. Certain new forms of measurements are quite valuable and lead to a new kind of analysis. In fact, Big Data – data coming from multinational corporations – offers information that was unthinkable a generation ago.

Cell phone records are better indicators of human migration than satellite images, for example. The Centers for Disease Control use Google searches for flu symptoms to predict outbreaks. But even this sort of information has to be contextualized. For that, the UCLA WORLD Center has a relationship with the University of Bristol in England to blend Big Data with traditionally collected data to come up with a truer measurement.

Countries often are responsible for collecting their own data, and as certain countries devolve the data may be compromised. This group understands how to maintain a standard of rigorous data, but they also understand that the level of epidemiology is often combined with more lax local gathering techniques.

A few of the conference guests gave detailed talks about their recent studies. Measure of America has done an in-depth study of one wealthy county in California, Sonoma County, known for its wine and tourism industry. From census tract to census tract, neighborhood to neighborhood, the indicators of wealth and comfort are stunningly different. Children of farm workers may have access to the same public education as children of the vineyard owners, but the life expectancy for these poorer children is more than a decade shorter than of the wealthier children.

Other attendees included representatives from the Social Progress Index, Giving Data, UNDP/Human Development Report, United Nations Development Program, Skoll Foundation, World Bank, Foundation Center, African Women’s Development Fund and UCLA.

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation was created in 1944 by hotelier Conrad N. Hilton. In its lifetime, the foundation has given away more than $1.4 billion in grants. It is located in Agoura Hills, Ca.

As the one-day conference wrapped up, the group agreed to continue the conversation, many are meeting this week at the Skoll Foundation World Forum in Oxford, England.

Petra Krylova of the Center for Global Development was adamant that measuring is meant to inform, “They are meant to inspire, and not to blame-and-shame. Most of these policies are actually win-win solutions for the world.”

Barbara Thomas is a Los-Angeles-based freelance journalist.


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Humanosphere will sometimes post articles from authors from around the globe. Although these folks are not regular contributors, we hope you enjoy this change of pace.