Bulgaria and Chad, part 2

I see that others found the UNDP’s comparison of the differences within Guatemalan to those between Bulgaria and Chad as evocative, or perhaps provocative, as I did. Five readers left comments on the posting, so I thought I would follow up on three of them, by Mark, Judith, and John. If you haven’t read the post being addressed, scroll back to July 28; I won’t repeat it all here, but it’s worth a look.

Mark asks about Guatemala’s population and GDP in comparison to that of the US. According to the CIA factbook, Guatemala crossed the threshold of 13 million inhabitants this year, whereas the US numbers over 303 million, including, though probably not actually counting, an increasing number of Guatemalans [that’s a subject for another day]. In terms of the economy, Guatemala is reported to have had a Gross Domestic Product of 33.7 Billion in 2007, which sounds like a large number until you put it next to the US’s 13.8 Trillion for the same year. Which explains a fair bit of those Guatemalans in the US, but again, that’s for another day.

There’s a lot more zeros there than my calculator can manage, so reverting to the math on paper, I come up with a US population that’s 23 times that of Guatemala, but with an economy that’s 1,000 times larger. So if GDP were perfectly shared in both countries, the theoretical citizen of the US would produce [and potentially consume] 45 times what the theoretical Guatemalan would.

Of course, neither GDP, nor wealth, nor income, nor services are perfectly shared in any country. The point of the article I quoted was how unequally those things are enjoyed within Guatemala. In fact the headline was “The rich [of Guatemala] have incomes 48 times higher than the poor.”

Judith wrote to point out that the UNDP’s Human Development Index [HDI] isn’t meant to measure inequality, which is typically measured by calculating the concentration of income in a GINI coefficient. She noted that the GINI cofficient also shows Guatemala to be highly unequal. She’s absolutely right. The Human Development Index looks at health [using life expectancy as a proxy measure], education [using adult literacy and school enrollment rates], and the economy [using GDP on a purchasing power parity basis].

However, what I found particularly clever by the UNDP report’s author was how he showed that the HDI could be used to illustrate inequality. By comparing the relative development of two different places in Guatemala, he showed in striking terms the differences in opportunity and standard of living enjoyed by its citizens.

Inequality isn’t just about income; that’s just what’s easiest to measure. Access to education, healthcare, electricity, running water, paved roads, justice systems, jobs, and everything else that makes up our lives are also areas of great inequality, and have profound effects on our quality of life and our opportunities to improve our circumstances. So when the author of the UNDP report used the device of comparing the HDI of the capital to Bulgaria but the village of Jocotán to that of Chad, that grabbed my attention in a way that saying “Guatemala has a GINI coefficient of .55” really doesn’t.

In his comment John went a step further, writing that for him, the most motivating part is not the measures of inequality and my guestimates of the value of our support, but that our work provides people the chance to pull themselves out of poverty. In the end, that’s what really matters. Good point.

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