Embedded within each of the metrics is a different set of values and ideologies of human and sustainable development.

Improving peoples’ daily lives is the raison d’etre for many endeavors, irrespective of whether they are initiated by private sector companies or international NGOs. Making a better ‘widget’ and helping people solve problems is the reason many companies went into business – to provide a product or service that we need to make our lives better. Assisting a community where women have to walk for 5 km daily to get water is the reason many NGOs got started. But how do you measure the success of these actions? In business, success is measured with profit margins and higher share prices. In international development the waters become more muddied. Measuring the progress of the quality of life of others brings into question the underlying values that you infuse in the word “development”. Sometimes these worlds even overlap, such as in the corporate social responsibility initiatives of the private sector. Whilst the actors involved may vary, measurement of progress in assisting poor communities to reach their potential and increase their quality of life is always a vital part of the process.

A key aspect of the strategic planning of development projects is the monitoring and evaluation of the efficiency of an activity/project and the subsequent results achieved. As initiatives increase in size and scope from community (micro), municipal to provincial, and even national (macro) levels, the metrics and the types of survey used become even more important for representative, reliable and independent data to be secured. There are a number of tools for measuring national levels of development progress and likewise community level development can also be effectively assessed. However, there are fewer methods available for scales in between, e.g. for municipal and provincial usage.

The recent 2013 Human Development Report (HDR) by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has again focused the attention of development workers and policy-makers alike. This annually released document offers a range of tools for the analysis of human development, from international to sub-national levels. The HDR has enabled a means for assessing policy and trends in human development, by providing ranking data for most countries in the world. Much of this data is based on the Human Development Index (HDI) developed by Mahbub ul Haq, Amartya Sen and a number of other economists. This index was created as a quantitative measure of three basic components of human quality of life – health, education, and income. Since the 1980s, this composite measure (each component is assigned a value between 0 and 1, and then the average is taken) has become a well-used index of human well-being and provides a baseline for development progress.

HDI is particularly appropriate for assessing the changes in the development of countries over the long term, for example, we know that the Canadian HDI has increased from 0.789 to 0.888 between 1980 and 2010, with an annual average HDI growth rate of 0.39% (putting us 8th on the global table). This can be compared to Bolivia’s HDI over the same period, which rose by 1.3% annually from 0.489 to 0.675 today. Despite the bigger average growth in Bolivia, it is still ranked as 108 out of 187. For developing countries, the annual HDI release can often promote vigorous political discussion and efforts, in both national and regional contexts, to improve quality of life. HDI can therefore provide useful policy information for setting national priorities, identifying potential growth areas, can act as an early warning system and allows countries to track their own performance over time.

Despite the apparent success of the HDI, there are a large number of criticisms of the index. Hence it is not surprising that other indices and measures of human development have been created, such as the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), Human Poverty Index (HPI), Gender Inequality Index (GII), the Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI), the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) and the Genuine Progress Index (GPI). Of course, embedded within each of the metrics is a different set of values and ideologies of human and sustainable development.

Modified versions of the HDI have also been created for sub-national and regional data capture, e.g. Estrada and Allen (2004). In particular, the MPI can be linked to individual households and used to analyze smaller statistical groups allowing regional or even smaller targets for development policy or projects. Other systems have also been created primarily for the developed world, such as the Community Development Capacity Index (CDCI), which provides a framework for communities to benchmark or evaluate the impact of community development initiatives.

Although development projects are often designed to create a variety of micro-level outcomes that are beneficial to individual communities, large projects and linked groups of smaller projects (across regional and municipal scales), will also create macro-level outcomes, e.g. political participation, better governance, improved economic performance and regional variations in growth. Policymakers have long debated the merits of top-down and bottom-up approaches to development, and decentralization from the national level is now seen as playing an essential role in the development sector. This decentralization has typically concentrated on local and municipal scales, however with the increasing involvement of the private sector, regional and sub-national (provincial) initiatives are likely to become more common in the pursuit of sustainable development.

In all cases, the challenge is to provide standardized measures that capture all of the relevant components of development progress, over a wide range of regional and temporal scales, for very different communities and countries. There is an obvious danger in relying too heavily on narrow measures of human development and policy based on a range of complementary measures (or indices) will generally provide superior outcomes. Critics often point out that the HDI is being used for purposes well beyond the original concept, but maybe the real value of this measure (and other similar indices) is to focus attention on development and not GDP, and to encourage debate on the ‘values’ that we believe to be important for improving our quality of life.