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An Historical Perspective on Indicators in Development Studies and the Need for Critical Reassessment

Adolfo Mascarenhas


As we approach the 21st century, it is becoming more and more obvious that although there have been some very dramatic changes, the goals of development will have to be revisited, especially in Africa. With the formal end of the Cold War there has as yet been no dividend from the assumed peace. Despite the rigid economic reforms proposed by the international financial institutions (IFIs), Africa is sinking into an economic and political quagmire. Despite all the notions of "one earth" emerging from the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), the tangible evidence for the healing processes are not in place, and the promises made at the Earth Summit in 1992 are beginning to wear thin (WCED 1987).

All issues and problems in Africa have been reduced to a common denominator, with economic reform touted as the panacea. Indeed, the economic reforms of this decade have brought a whirlwind of change: their impact is as profound and far-reaching as the changes during the decade of African independence. The structural adjustment programs designed by the IFIs will probably herald even more crushing indebtedness, civil strife, anarchy and the near-enslavement of the majority who are poor. Reforms have actually meant that there is greater disparity between the rich and powerful on one hand, and the poor and powerless on the other.

While Africa's leaders are faced with a catastrophic economic crisis, it is apparent that the solution lies not so much in the economic as in the political domain. The silence of the masses against their leaders is now slowly being broken. There is spontaneous reaction and pent-up frustration: "... Is there any country in Africa which is not experiencing rioting, protests, university closures, campaigns for multi-party democracy or public opposition to the work of the IMF and the World Bank? A profound sense of dissatisfaction pervades Africa..." (Turok 1991).

The Evolution of Development Indicators

Two events, more than any others, have shaped the evolution of development as we know it and the indicators or measures used to describe Third World development: the Great Depression of the 1930s and the subsequent World War, which led to the emergence of international institutions directed at global reconstruction. Since most Third World countries attained their independence after World War II, it is not surprising that European and North American models for measuring development have generally prevailed.

The Great Depression played havoc with the majority of workers in Europe and America. The first social impact reports had recognizable social indicators (SIs) and these were very successful, especially in North America. At a time when the magic of the market proved to be a cruel mirage, governments intervened in various ways and the welfare state entered in defense of the downtrodden.

Social indicators did not come into common usage again until the mid-1960s. Quantitatively inclined political scientists tried to provide comparative material for several statistical variables (Russet 1964). The big emphasis came after the publication of Social Indicators, a volume produced for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), on the methodological issues of collating development indicators (Bauer 1966). How useful the studies were to NASA is unknown; however, they certainly generated a great deal of interest. The use of SIs to influence the postindustrial future expanded the use of the SI approach. A number of sponsoring agencies in the United States and Europe encouraged further research. Furthermore, as the the SI movement was gaining momentum, the economic or market approach to development was also in the ascendant.

The Bretton Woods institutions were created largely to finance the rebuilding of a devastated Europe, especially factories and infrastructure. During the war, European governments had literally taken over national industries such as iron and steel production, vehicle manufacturing, ship building, and coal mining. Governments, therefore, had to play a major role in returning the industries to the market rather than rebuilding the social wreckage of the war. Inevitably, economic performance was given prominence in the system of national accounts.

With the confidence brought about by the rapid progress of reconstruction in Europe and with growing "First World" prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s, the IFIs and the industrialized countries assumed that economic growth was secured, and that the main challenge for the state was therefore to improve the global quality of life. As the IFIs moved into the "Third World," the basic thinking on economic growth remained within the European perspective - but without the same resources. In addition, the IFIs continued the colonial tradition of advising African countries to build their future on the exports of primary agricultural crops and minerals (Brown and Teffen 1992).

It will take a long time for the IFIs to adjust to the real situation in the Third World. African countries had not suffered from the destruction Europe had, yet both the departing colonial powers and the leaders of the emerging nations assumed that the key to development was to follow in the footsteps of the industrialized North, and therefore to focus on "modernization." The top priority, therefore, was to build basic infrastructure, agriculture had to be transformed, and the lack of industries became a crisis. In this modernization model all one had to do was to measure the gross domestic product (GDP) or gross national product (GNP) to determine national wealth, or rather the lack of it. There was a major flaw in this argument, however: the history and circumstances of development in Africa were very different from those of Europe.

The World Bank eventually conceded that development strategies worsened economic inequalities, but argued forcibly that the latter could be avoided by paying attention to redistribution (Chenery 1974). Policies could be formulated after mapping poverty profiles using SIs which would identify the affected groups and the scale of the problem. After 20 years of experimentation, this model is still being foisted on African countries. In the above "GNP-growth-plus-trickle-down model" the question, "Growth for whom?" was rarely asked. When the model was applied to rural areas, it tended to stress technical fixes and concentrate on the entrepreneurial class of farmers in more resource-endowed areas (George 1990). Basic issues, like returns to labor, were blatantly ignored.

An alternative to the World Bank model was the "correction of the dependency" one, under which the centre had exploited the periphery, which meant that as long as the historical imbalances of unequal exchange continued, the Third World would continue to be impoverished. Once again, little was achieved despite ideas of the new international economic order (NIEO), a recommendation of the United Nations Committee for Trade and Development, the Brandt Commission and the Group of 77. Ten years of dialogue between North and South have not helped to bring harmony between them. Indeed, it is argued that even if there were harmony between states, there is little within the countries themselves. As George (1990) correctly points out, increased national revenues do not benefit the poor even in rich countries: it is illusory, therefore, to think of them as a solution to underdevelopment.

As the "modernization theory" and the market mechanism began to be criticized, serious questions began to be asked about the ecological limits of growth promulgated by the Club of Rome. The Beriloche Model, unlike other computer models, "... did not so much seek to predict the consequences of present trends, as to demonstrate the material viability of a desirable future (Miles 1985, p. 154)."

The work on basic needs started by the Beriloche Institute in Argentina was followed up and promoted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as the "Basic Needs Strategy of Development" (ILO 1992). The concept is simple and robust, and reaches to the core of human development. The basic needs approach was used widely in Africa. However, it gave the impression of being deprivation-based - there was noting in it about the "higher needs" or "growth" of society.

Human Development Indicators

By the end of the first development decade in 1960, there was widespread disillusionment with the conventional measure of development - the "GNP Approach." The developed world was far from perfect, material progress was increasingly divergent and developing countries were gaining many of the social problems of the industrialized countries with few of the material benefits. Instead of blindly imitating the developed world, the idea of Human Development became an attempt to

...conceive of a contemporary alternative to maldevelopment - and an alternative that is anchored in the real world rather than drifting in the oceans around some Utopia...the aim is to map out an alternative that reflects the dynamism of real-world processes...and the rich potentials of humanity rather than the frozen configuration of a blueprint for an ideal social order (Miles 1985, p. 10).

Nevertheless, information was still needed on social parameters such as poverty. For some time, the main measure of hardship or poverty continued to be unemployment. Yet in the rich countries, poverty with state-provided unemployment benefits takes on a very different meaning from that prevailing in the Third World. There, poverty is frequently an undignified and inhuman struggle for the very basics of survival.

Market values, which usually shape development models, generally threaten many aspects of well-being and the quality of life. Unlike the unimodal economic or GNP approach to development, Human Development is multidimensional and can have political, cultural and even economic facets. It places human beings, rather than business, at the centre of the development process.

There have been other approaches to development and indicators often attempting to modify and depart from the GNP approach. The Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI) incorporates variables of infant mortality, life expectancy and literacy. Indices of "ecodevelopment" have focused on the environment apart from the four key societal needs: production, reproduction, communication and political authority. The World Bank and UNDP Annual Development Reports each evaluate development and make future projections based on information for which development indicators are central. The former has provided attractive presentations of human resource data concerned with economic development, while the latter has emphasized the human development of member states.

Other agencies of the United Nations have been particularly concerned with the topic of development indicators. In the late 1960s, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) began to publish the results of its research program on standards of living. The first report showed the influence of living standards on economic growth and came to the conclusion that poverty in developing countries inhibited economic development (Scott 1978). The study was a breakthrough, in the sense that it reversed the conventional approach by using poverty, not economy, as the starting point. UNRISD has continued to pay attention to various development issues, and in recent years has produced important reports on the impact of reform on different segments of society.

Another UN approach relevant to the topic of indicators was the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development (GPID) Project of the United Nations University (UNU). The initial ideas of the GPID Projects were proposed and developed by John Galtung (1976). The UNU Project could not have come at a better moment. By the 1980s the rich had become richer, the superpowers had accumulated unimaginable arsenals of mass destruction and the planet had begun to gasp for breath. Clearly, living in a polluted environment, compounded by insecurity and poverty we have been witnessing not development, but maldevelopment. In response to this crisis and the need for diversity in thinking, the GPID project drew its members from the political "right," "left," and "centre," as well as from the East, West, North, and South, to discuss the future of human development. "Human development refers to the development of human beings in all life stages and consists of a harmonious relationship between persons, society and nature, ensuring the fullest flowering of human potential without degrading, despoiling or destroying society or nature (Galtung 1978)."

Nearly all the 23 member institutions involved in the GPID were dubious about the use of GNP as a measure of development and its relation to a process of development based on industrialization and modernization. The fundamental questions therefore became: What were the goals of different communities? What were the processes that could lead to different paths to development? Clearly, with such a large and diverse group, there were confrontations and serious disagreements over these questions. There was no attempt towards a UN-type of compromise. The views were so divergent that the UNU published only a few of the more than 20 books that emerged from the group. Many of these reports drew attention to the breadth of emerging global crises and called for an examination of local efforts and a range of indicators not considered by conventional development models. These included individual and community security, as well as the place of beliefs and religion in development.

The Age of Market Reform and Development

Since the 1980s, most African states have increasingly found themselves economically and politically beleaguered. This cannot neglect the fact that African governments have often accepted the need for fundamental revisions in their approach and strategies for development, as evidenced by the Lagos Plan of Action which was subsequently worked into the World Bank's Agenda (Adedeji and Shaw 1985). Few serious ideas and actions to accelerate development are being proposed. In the power vacuum arising out of exhaustion and mismanagement, the IFIs have imposed their orthodox economic recommendations with such impunity that there have been setbacks even in areas where there had been some progress, like education - although it is true that some degree of reform has been necessary.

Since the decade of "economic reforms" designed by the IFIs and assisted by the donor community, the main priority has been a common economic approach to solving problems. Basically, the main aims of these reforms have been to eliminate economic distortions like overvalued currencies, fiscal deficits in the public sector, restrictions of local and foreign trade, retrenchment of inefficient and perhaps even corrupt public services and the mobilization of resources to stimulate growth (Hussain and Faruqee 1994). At the same time, there is now a steady flow and dissemination of well-orchestrated and uncritical information. Fortunately, there is also a trickle of refreshing viewpoints challenging the smugness of economic and environmental assumptions.

The initial research on the IFI reforms or structural adjustment programs (SAPs) was more concerned with macroeconomic impacts. These were later followed by emphasis on social welfare issues, which were replaced in turn by governance and national adjustments in relation to socioeconomic changes (Gibbon 1993). The main effects of SAPs have been a major decline in the social well-being of the majority, limited progress toward expected reforms, and economic results which have not lived up to the claims originally made. As poverty strengthens its grip in sub-Saharan Africa it is increasingly becoming evident that both "political capacity" and "political commitment" are required for redistributive change to eradicate absolute poverty (Adelman 1986).

Despite the often sharp divergence in orientation between the various observers, there is a surprising degree of agreement about the trends and impacts which accompany adjustment efforts. With very few exceptions, most African states appear to have abdicated their responsibilities and even the word "development" seems to have almost disappeared from usage. The time has come, therefore, to once again reconsider "development" and its indicators.

People's Development Indicators in Semi-Arid Areas

There are good reasons for focusing this paper on new approaches to development indicators and, in particular, their application to arid and semi-arid areas. Over the last 25 years, there have been at least four massive famines - two in the Sahel Region and two in the Horn of Africa - which have caused enormous loss of life and had devastating impacts on both people and governments. Development indicators used in Africa also tend to have an urban bias, and at best only consider the interests of rural agriculturalists. Pastoralists and other land users are generally excluded from consideration, and there is a tendency to regard their presence as detrimental to development and conservation.

Problems arise because there are several false assumptions made about the inability of the pastoralists to manage their own resources. The question of scale and the sharing of common resources has simply not been given enough attention. In the case of pastoralism, it is assumed that the range would be destroyed (Hardin 1968). Little attention has been paid to the density of population or community-based organizations and knowledge which provide a safety net for the less privileged. The basic problem seems to be the refusal to accept that people can have alternative development goals.

One of the main development approaches to affect pastoralists is their sedentarization. The repercussions of this policy can be very negative. The Maasai, for instance, have been progressively dispossessed of their land by the greed of others. Farming on small plots in the drylands with inadequate knowledge of agriculture means that the failure rate, which is already high among the sedentary people, will spell disaster for the Maasai who opt to be peasants. The agricultural husbandry of desperately poor people is notoriously damaging to the ecosystem. A recent study attempts to show the intensity of competition between agriculture and pastoralism in the drylands at the expense of the resources and interests of the Maasai themselves (Mascarenhas 1993).

One of the distinguishing features of the conventional development indicators is that they were externally oriented, especially in their value system. They assumed that local people had no perception of their own needs, and that communities did not distinguish, for example, between richer and poorer members of their community: yet local indicators reject this bias. Above all, most conventional indicators were simplistic about resource management and generally very silent about environmental dimensions. For instance, despite all the rhetoric, there is very little known about who the poor are, or the impact of poverty on the environment (Cooksey 1994; Mascarenhas 1994). In the case of Tanzania, as much as 30% of the population's informal activity does not enter the national statistics (Maliyomkono and Bagachwa 1990).

A good starting point for community-based development indicators in the arid and semi-arid areas is that most households stress self-reliance. Because of this, communities like the Maasai can contribute a great deal to development indicators, and to three areas in particular. The first is their concern for the environment, knowledge of environmental indicators and their efforts to manage the environment on a sustainable basis. Second are their poverty indicators, based on possession of livestock, which represents wealth, a basis of survival, and guidelines for social obligations. For instance, among the Maasai, four or five traditional household wealth categories have been identified (Muir 1994; Potkanski 1994). Third is the existence among pastoralists of an immensely varied and rich traditional knowledge system (Niamir 1990). But the situation is changing as the semi arid-areas attract new groups of people. How will all of the various interest groups be accommodated? Can a common "development" in fact take place? For it remains true that "after almost half a century of development activities in the arid and semi-arid lands of Africa, we are no closer to finding solutions...(Niamir 1990, p. 3)."

Finding solutions is the challenge to which this book is directed.