Measuring Differences in Development

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Measuring Differences in Development

Indicators of development have several uses:

  • They allow us to use a figure for comparing different countries.
  • Countries can be ranked in an attempt to fairly allocate Aid payments.
  • Indicators give us an idea about what the country is like economically, socially even environmentally.

They do however have limitations that you should be aware of. These are discussed later.

You need to be able to define the main indicators, explain what they mean and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. You should be aware that this is not a complete list of all indicators as that would be impossible.


Did you know that one of the latest indicators is the Big Mac indicator?
Countries are ranked according to how long an average waged worker must work to be able to afford a Big Mac. I'm not sure what happens if they go to Burger King!


Big Mac

The main indicators

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - this is the value of all goods and services produced within a country. It is usually measured in US$ and calculated per capita. This makes comparisons between different countries easier.

Alternatively you could be faced with Gross National Product (GNP). The difference is that GNP also includes goods and services produced by that country overseas.

GDP is probably the most widely used indicator. It implies a lot about the country. If the figure is high it suggests they have a large number of productive industries producing goods. It also suggests that the service industry is well developed. (Services include things such as hospital and schools. If the figure is low it suggests that the country has few industries and few services so therefore a poor standard of living.)


Advantages of using GDP/GNP as an indicator:Disadvantages of using GDP/GNP and an indicator:
A useful figure for comparing countries. Often used to rank countries to establish a fair system of aid payments.Can hide inequalities as it does not show the distribution of wealth.
Is a good indicator of the state of the economy and provision of services.Can be manipulated by governments who want to appear poor to collect more aid.
Fairly easy to calculate from official government figures.Does not take into account subsistence or informal economies which are very important in less developed countries.


Infant mortality: this is the number of infants that die prematurely. You need to check the figures because it could be the numbers that die before they are one or five. It could be as a percentage of the births or a per thousand figure. Just check carefully before using.

This will tell us the state of the countries health service, food provision and water quality:


Advantages of using infant mortality as an indicator:Disadvantages of using infant mortality as an indicator:
Indicates quality of health care, water quality, food supply.Hard to get an accurate figure as many births in the less developed countries would be un-registered.
Very easy indicator to understand.Evidence from some countries that the level of infant mortality is well above that disclosed.
Focuses on one of the most significant aspects of development.High infant mortality could be a result of social or political factors. For example in China the figure would be very high because of the countries one child policy.


Birth Rate: a simple one, the number of people born per thousand people per year. A high birth rate indicates a low level of development due to a lack of contraception or the need for large families. (See The Demographic Transition Model in the Population section.) A low birth rate indicates a high level of development.


Advantages of using birth rate as an indicator:Disadvantages of using birth rate as an indicator:
Clear indicator of a countries level of development.Can be affected by population policies such as China's one child policy.
Can be used for predicting the future situation and planning accordingly.Figures in less developed countries not necessarily accurate.


High birth rate

Death rate: this is number of people who die per thousand people per year. It will be a clear indicator of the level of health care, quality of water, sanitation, accommodation, and food supply.


Advantages of using death rate as an indicator:Disadvantages of using death rate as an indicator:
Indicates level of health care provision, water quality, sanitation, and living conditions.Does not actually tell us what is responsible for the high death rate. For example a high death rate could be a result of a natural disaster not poor health care.
An easy to use indicator.Very difficult to get accurate figure from the less developed world.


Literacy rates: this is the percentage of people that can read and write. Clear indication of the availability of education and also the extent to which people can get into education - for example in India many children cannot get in to school as they have to work to help support their families.


Advantages of using literacy rate as an indicator:Disadvantages of using literacy rate as an indicator:
Indicates the amount of education on offer.Takes no notice of other skills the people may have which are equally valuable - for example a good understanding of farming techniques.
Shows how many children could/couldn't attend school.When used on its own doesn't tell us whether the figure is a consequence of too few schools or the fact that children are having to work.


There are of course other indicators but these are the main ones. If you come across another just think about what it shows and why.

As you have seen each of these indicators have advantages and disadvantages. In an attempt to minimise these disadvantages composite indicators have been developed. Examples of these include the "Human suffering index" and the "Human development index". Each of these uses several indicators to try and avoid the disadvantages of one.

Human suffering index - The country is ranked from 0 to 10 for each of the following indicators (0 is very good, 10 very bad):

  • Life expectancy
  • Daily calorie supply
  • Access to clean water
  • Per capital income
  • Civil rights
  • Political freedom
  • Inflation
  • Communications
  • Percentage in secondary school
  • Immunisation of infants

The countries scores are totalled and then ranked accordingly. The worst a country could have is 100, the best 0.

Using this score the worst countries would be Mozambique, Somalia and Afghanistan whilst the best would be Denmark, The Netherlands and Belgium.

Human development index: This uses fewer indicators than the above. It simply uses wealth, health and education. It is calculated each year. The best country get "1" the worst "0". This score is compared to GDP tables. If a country is higher up the HDI table than the GDP table then it must be successfully investing in health and education. If it is below then there is room for improvement.

Currently, several countries including Pakistan, Vietnam and Cuba are doing well whilst Namibia, Morocco and Algeria poorly.

See the 'Question' section for possible ways in which you will have to use indicators of development.

As an intelligent A-level geographer you should also be aware of some of the issues surrounding these indicators.

All of these indicators come from a very Western point of view. The most frequently used (GDP) is directly linked to money. Is it fair to value all societies by this?

On the discovery of Aboriginals in Australia Captain Cooks men offered them gold in return for their digging sticks - potential souvenirs! No matter how much gold was offered the Aborigines would not part with their sticks. For them gold has no value. Is money held in such high regard around the world?


You must also remember that a high GDP does not necessarily mean there is fair distribution throughout the country.

With economic development comes stress. Cancer and heart disease is very rare in the developing world yet are the biggest killers in the Western World.

Development leads to destruction and pollution of the natural environment. In the last two centuries development has done more damage to our world than the thousands of years before.

You must use your own opinion on several matters especially when answering extended questions.