I understand why Americans love lists. It jives with our competitive ethos, not to mention our Trump-like love of superlatives. Ours is a culture of Top Ten Lists, Best-Of Issues, college rankings, and Final Fours. Heck, even the wizards at CNN have figured out a way to rank American heroism somehow. But lists in other countries tend to backfire. Whenever Forbes ranks the world’s richest men, Russian oligarchs always squirm. Similarly, whenever the UN's Human Development Report releases its list of the world’s least desirable countries to live in, a few African nations always raise hackles.
The rankings take into account life expectancy, health, literacy rates, and living standards. The world’s worst place to live, according to the UNDP, is drought-prone Niger. The best? Norway, land of beautiful blonds and bountiful oil. That has folks in Niger howling mad. They accuse the UNDP of not using their official data and harboring a bias toward their region of the world. They also point out that places like Somalia and Haiti did not even make the list for lack of reliable data.
Niger may have a point. Even though it cries foul every time a damning report comes out – it accused the World Food Program of wrongly exaggerating fears of a famine in 2005 – it is correct to say these lists often rely on meaningless data (How can Iceland, whose entire banking sector almost collapsed this past year, rank so high?). They also fail to account for the underground economy so prevalent in poorer parts of the globe. And they do not account for social development cleavages within societies.
The other trouble with these lists is that countries, not unlike U.S. colleges, inevitably will fudge their numbers to ratchet up their rankings. China has surged up the charts in recent years but its data, as anyone who has studied the country up close, is fuzzy at best. Several countries near the bottom may start padding their books (even more) or emphasizing the wrong areas of development, just to jump ahead, similar to how American colleges base their fundraising drives on the percentage of alumni giving, not the gross amount (which arguably, matters more).
I can appreciate why the UNDP attempts to rank human development. It is a way to shift emphasis away from gross domestic product (GDP) as the “holy grail” of economic development. It is not only about how many cars in the garage, but also about things like environmental sustainability, healthcare access, education levels, and leisure time. The index is a huge enterprise and of course it’s imperfect and published with several disclaimers about its methodology. On some level, it’s also a useful way to engage national governments, track progress, and promote the idea of human development, as opposed to just GDP growth.
Yet, the development community remains skeptical, and rightfully so. “It’s a garbage one-time UN measure,” one expert wrote me in an email. “Even they realize that subjective ‘facts’ don't really measure anything and aren't necessarily reflective of the moment or comparative over time.” Also you know a metric is faulty when its creators knock the media for emphasizing the wrong things in its headlines, like, for example, that Niger is the world’s most awful place to live.
At the end of the day, besides being a chintzy way to grab headlines, these lists probably do more harm than good. They have a boy-cries-wolf quality to them (i.e. What if the UN warns of famine somewhere but is ignored?). They have a way of singling out places like Niger, when Afghanistan, ranked not much higher, seems to get a free pass. And if anything, they seem to be custom-made for an American audience, which drools over its lists up as if they were gospels handed down from the heavens. How is that for human development?