Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1996-1997 index

Distributed August 9, 1996
Contact: Tracie Sweeney

Professor offers fresh approach to measuring condition of world's poor

Economic performance is not the way to measure human well-being, says Brown Professor Morris David Morris. His Physical Quality of Life Index shows that quality of life has improved faster for many of the world's poorest people than it has for people in some of the world's richest nations.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Can a person live on less than a dollar a day? The World Bank reports that 1.4 billion people - 26 percent of the world's total - do. With few exceptions, these are countries where economic performance has deteriorated since the 1970s or where economic growth has barely matched population increase.

Yet a Brown University professor's data show positive changes in quality of life in these poorest-of-the-poor countries. Human well-being in these countries, as measured by infant mortality, life expectancy and literacy, has been improving, according to research by Morris David Morris, a professor of sociology and professor of the comparative study of development.

Morris has developed what he considers a more accurate measurement of quality of life to arrive at this conclusion. His Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI) summarizes infant mortality, life expectancy at age one and basic literacy on a zero to 100 scale. The index enables researchers to rank countries, not by incomes but by changes in real life chances.

Morris believes that the gross national product used by the World Bank and USAID as a basic indicator of of human well-being is seriously flawed. "Obviously, no one could stay alive on what a dollar a day will buy at U.S. prices," Morris says. "But the GNP ignores differences in prices and the distribution of income. It also fails to illuminate how efficiently income is spent." For instance, U.S. health expenditures per capita are the highest in the world, but at least 22 countries had better infant and child mortality rates in 1993.

The PQLI, on the other hand, "tells us not how much has been spent but how effectively lives have improved. While there are many other things we might want to know, infant mortality, life expectancy at age one and basic literacy are central to well-being of the poorest of the poor," he says.

Morris has PQLI data spanning three decades. One major finding in his initial study is the lack of congruence between GNP per capita and the PQLI. Industrialized countries tended to rank high in the index, but other countries with high incomes, especially the very richest Mideast oil producers, had PQLIs in the low 30s. Some very poor countries like Sri Lanka (PQLI of 82) and the Indian state of Kerala (PQLI of 68) performed well despite very low monetary incomes.

Additional research expands and confirms these findings that run counter to conventional wisdom. For instance:

These improvements, Morris says, come mainly from the mobilization of indigenous capacities, not through World Bank or USAID support. Development experts are blind to the fact that some of the world's poorest people have always had to adapt to the changing demands of exacting environments and have done so with considerable skill, Morris says.

"Rising PQLI numbers show that there is vitality, creativity and genuine organizational potential that can be mobilized to directly improve the conditions of poor countries," he says. "To take advantage of these indigenous capacities requires foreign donors to reduce the single-minded focus on rapid economic growth measures. The pallid justification that growth benefits will trickle down to benefit the world's poor in the long run ignores the truth that in the long run we are all dead."