Measuring development 101: theory | Inquirer Opinion
Social Climate

Measuring development 101: theory

/ 05:02 AM April 20, 2024

It was in late 1973, at the freshly established Development Academy of the Philippines (DAP) at Tagaytay City, that I saw the term “social indicators” for the first time. It was on the draft research agenda of Onofre D. “OD” Corpuz, the first DAP president. I was with several professors of the University of the Philippines (UP), invited by OD for an overnight stay, to see if we would like to help him out in some way.

I said I would be interested in social indicators if poverty measurement was part of it; happily, it was. OD appointed me to direct the DAP Social Indicators Project (SIP). It was my sideline to being a UP economics professor. I recruited other professors, and several graduate students, for the project staff; we started work in early 1974, a half-century ago.

Social indicators research is essentially about how human well-being can be quantified more meaningfully than by orthodox economic indicators. In the first place, it definitely cannot be represented by any one indicator, least of all by the gross national product (GNP). As an economist not fixated on economic growth, I am sometimes mistaken for a sociologist, and take it as a compliment.

Well-being has many dimensions and thus requires many indicators. The indicators should not merely describe inputs or outputs, but their impact on the people. For instance, government spending for the military is a cost of maintaining external peace and is not directly beneficial to the people. For that matter, much government spending for the bureaucracy, though counted in GNP, is simply instrumental, rather than beneficial, to public welfare.


There are multiple social concerns. The SIP, when done by mid-1975, recommended 30 measurable social indicators, covering nine social concerns or dimensions: 1. health and nutrition, 2. learning, 3. income and consumption, 4. employment, 5. non-human productive resources, 6. housing, utilities, and the environment, 7. public safety and justice, 8. political values, and 9. social mobility. These are thoroughly discussed in the 574-page book, “Measuring Philippine Development: Report of the Social Indicators Project,” published by DAP in 1976.The DAP had been established by Presidential Decree No. 205 in June 1973. Given the martial law context since September 1972, the project’s most critical dimension was political well-being. Excluding it would have been a glaring cop-out. It was crucial for SIP credibility that the late Elsa P. Jurado, political scientist, had freedom to construct (experimental) indexes of political mobility, political awareness, political dissent, and political efficacy (see my “No golden age under Marcos,” 2/5/22). These and the project’s other experimental indicators—such as disability due to illness, learning quality, self-rated poverty, housing adequacy, perception of public safety and justice, and perception of social mobility—were tested by a pilot survey of 1,000 households in Batangas province in mid-1974.

Yes, these are subjective indicators; but the subjectivity is not that of the researchers, it is that of the survey respondents. Subjective indicators can be objectively tested; the way to do it is by independent surveys.

The real purpose of social indicators is for guidance—of everybody, not just the government—not publicity or propaganda. Statistics can’t be thrown at a problem like hunger. They need to be generated regularly—annually. if not quarterly—so that prompt actions can be taken based on them, and adjusted based on updated measurement. Of course, they should be scientifically accurate; they should be subject to competition and periodically tested.

The statistics should be disaggregated meaningfully, by potential sources of unwanted discrimination—by gender, age, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic class. Beware that demanding too much detail—like provincial-level data—risks not having any data at all.


Relationship to universal concerns. The wide acceptance of multiple social concerns can be seen in the United Nations’ (UN) adoption of eight Millennium Development Goals, which were targeted for achievement in 1990-2015. Later, these were updated to 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2015-2030 (short UN titles below):

1. no poverty, 2. zero hunger, 3. good health and well-being, 4. quality education, 5. gender equality, 6. clean water and sanitation, 7. affordable and clean energy, 8. decent work and economic growth, 9. industry, innovation, and infrastructure, 10. reduced inequalities, 11. sustainable cities and communities, 12. responsible consumption and production, 13. climate action, 14. life below water, 15. life on land, 16. peace, justice, and strong institutions, and 17. partnerships for the goals.


Dashboard indicators are better than combination indicators. An example of the latter is the Human Development Index (HDI), which is an average of indexes of life expectancy, schooling attainment, and income per person (proxied by GNP per capita). The problem with HDI is that its components, though important by themselves, get hidden by the averaging process.

The application of social indicators. This is for a future column, “Measuring development 102: practice.”


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TAGS: Development Academy of the Philippines, opinion

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