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Basic capabilities index
Poverty dimensions: Responsibilities to be undertaken by governments

Social Watch

19 August 2005

SARPN acknowledges Social Watch as a source of this document.
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The study of poverty and social development cannot be reduced to only the consideration of people’s and countries’ income levels. Other dimensions must be taken into account. To evaluate the progress of a country or community towards improving the well being of its people, it is crucial to assess several indicators of the different capabilities that will enable women and men to function effectively as individuals and collectively.

To assess progress towards the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), for example, the United Nations has identified 48 indicators. While those indicators are extremely useful to look at how each commitment is doing in detail, they do not make it easy to see the “big picture”. Further, on many indicators data are only available for a limited number of countries and lack historical series, which makes it very difficult to assess how nations are evolving or how they stand in comparison with their peers.

The public needs a clear answer to questions like “how fast are we progressing overall? Are we doing better or worse than our neighbour country? And for that, indexes are extremely useful, merging different indicators in a single number.

In 2004 Social Watch published for the first time a summary index to compare and to classify countries according to their progress on social development. This Basic Capabilities Index (BCI)1 is based on three indicators:

  • deliveries attended by skilled health personnel
  • mortality among children under five years old, and
  • number of children remaining in the school system up to the fifth grade.
Contrary to income, that can grow without any limit (theoretically), all these three indicators have a “ceiling”, they reach a maximum possible level when all women have medical attention while giving birth and no children are out of school by fifth grade. It might be impossible to reduce infant mortality to cero, but some countries have values so low that they are in practice close to it. An index of 100, the achievement of that ceiling on all three indicators, does not imply a high level of social development. What it means is that the country has achieved universal coverage of the minimum essential requirements to be able to make progress towards improved well being. A departure point, rather than a destination.

In the real world, though, few countries are close to 100 and too many rate “critical level” on the BCI scale (under 70). The next category, with “very low” BCI ratings (under 80), covers countries in which there are big obstacles to achieving minimum standards like those set by the MDGs. The “low” BCI level is a heterogeneous group, including poor countries that are improving their social development and relatively rich countries with high inequalities. The countries in the top two categories, “medium” and “high” BCI ratings (over 90 in the index), have been able to satisfy most or all of their citizens’ basic needs.

If the MDGs are achieved by the year 2015 in each and every country, all girls and boys will be attending school, all mothers will have medical assistance when delivering and infant mortality will be reduced by two thirds. The BCI will therefore be at least at a medium level for all nations.

  1. In the 2004 Social Watch Report this index was called the “Quality of Life Index”.

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