UNDP has launched its 20th anniversary edition of the Human Development Report.  In the report, they argue that development is working better than we realize – and use this to argue that aid is therefore working better than people think.  However, there is an important caveat in the report which calls this general claim into question.  As the BBC reports “There has been most progress in the areas of health and education, sectors which have received most focus in development assistance.”

This is a huge caveat.  These are the sectors that are easiest to measure – at least through traditional indicators.  Development programs have been designing programs around clear indicators and pumping money into achieving those indicators for some time – the same indicators used by the human development report.  Of course literacy rates are up.  Of course life expectancy is up.  These are low-hanging fruit.  But what does this really mean for the quality of life of people living in the Global South?  Are they living better, happier lives?  Or are they living longer, in greater misery than ever before?  Are any of these gains sustainable, or are they predicated on continual flows of aid?  There is no answer here – and it is an answer we need to obtain not through indicators, but by getting out there and talking to those we intend to help with development.  Get on your boots, and get out of the SUV/Mission Office!

I do, however, like that this report is trying to make an evidence-based case for the persistence of market failures around public goods.  We have seen, time and again, that when governments fail to provide security, access to healthcare, and education for their populations, the markets DO NOT step in to fill the gap.  A lot of poor, vulnerable people get left behind.  (Given recent trends and this week’s election results, it is entirely likely that South Carolina will empirically demonstrate this  can happen even here in the US, at least in the area of education, over the next four years).