Limitations of different measures of development

Using just one measure of development can be misleading, and it is often better to use more than one. For example, Zimbabwe is a low income country, but 84% of people living there can read and write.

Another example is China. The country has a very low birth rate, but it is not included in the World Bank's list of high income countries (HIC). Their previous policy of one child per family has reduced their birth rates considerably.

However, the one child policy has recently been overturned in China, with the government now allowing couples to have two children if one parent is an only child. Population experts have for many years expressed their concerns about the strict birth controls operated in China, and how they are leading to a demographic crisis not only in terms of gender imbalance, but also in terms of a population that is growing old. With low fertility rates (around 1.6) and longer life expectancy, the United Nations estimates that by 2050 about 37% of the Chinese population will be over the age of 60. At the same time, its working-age population continues to decline, threatening its continued economic growth.

China's one child policy
An old poster promoting China's former one-child policy

Used on their own, each measure of development has advantages and disadvantages:

  • Birth rate – this is a good indicator of social progress and the most developed countries have low birth rates. However, birth rates can be changed by government policies. These policies do not always mean that a country is developed.
  • Death rate – this is effective as it shows how good a country's healthcare system is. It can also indicate a good standard of living. However, very rich countries have many older people, so death rates can be higher than expected.
  • GNI per capita – this measure only shows economic development and says nothing about whether people in a country have a good standard of living. It is also an average and so it hides information about people who are very rich or very poor.
  • HDI – this is widely recognised as a good measure of development. It takes into account economic measures, such as income, but also social measures, such as levels of education.