Measuring Progress at National and sub-National Levels

This article is a rejoinder to Chukwuma Charles Soludo’s (CCS) ‘how do we measure the performance of state governments?’ published on This Day website on April 15, 2013. The focus of CCS’ article is not only timely, it is also critical to our national development discourse. The subject of the article should in fact concern policymakers, academics and think-tanks at national and sub-national levels throughout Nigeria. It should especially concern ordinary people and inform the basis of citizens’ political engagement.

CCS raises important questions regarding accountability and citizens’ engagement with their respective local and state governments, and notes that any demand for accountability should start at these levels of governance. The article also emphasises the importance of lower levels of governance in creating change, wealth and national prosperity. CCS opines that ‘If the local governments create prosperity at the local communities, the huge rural-urban migration and the frightening urban youth unemployment could be averted.’ Then he raises the fundamental question: ‘how do we know if states are performing or not?’ In response, the article provides an overarching conceptual framework – which should guide the response to the question posed, by quoting King Hussein (the first): ‘the quality of life of the individual citizen is the ultimate yardstick by which to measure the success of any government.’ By the foregoing, CCS effectively aligns with the arguments of notable welfare economists and wellbeing researchers like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, that development progress should be viewed as a function of the quality of life in the given society.

One of the core elements of CCS’ article is the term ‘performance’ and how to measure it. The key questions to be answered therefore are: what is performance? By what yardstick or standard do we measure performance? What indicators can provide the most appropriate framework for measuring performance?

Measuring performance is a function of achievement based on established standards or criteria. In order to be successful in designing a framework for measuring performance, there needs to be an established framework, a consensus on what in fact constitutes progress. There needs to be a baseline. Internationally, some measures such as the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) human development index (HDI) measures progress based on three objective indicators: literacy, life expectancy and income or purchasing power parity. These indicators, though not uncontested, provide a basic framework internationally across which countries’ progress are measured relative to others.

Also within the UN, countries’ progress is measured on the basis of their attainment of the internationally agreed millennium development goals (MDGs). The MDGs aim to halve global poverty by the year 2015. They provide an alternative set of indicators by which countries’ progress can be compared across time. As a measure of progress, the MDGs are of value because they have benchmarks by which any change, positive or negative can be compared across time and across countries. Achievement of policy objectives and political agendas such as the MDGs, national and sub-national frameworks should be measured based on the extent to which implementation of policies, programmes and strategies have an impact on ordinary people’s lives. So, based on the quote from King Hussein above, I will state that in programmatic terms, the measurement of state governments’ progress should focus on outcomes. Outcomes are concerned with the change; tangible and measurable changes, which occur in people’s lives, possibly as a result of specified policies or programmes.

During the last two decades, the elaboration of matrices to measure quality of life at international, national and sub-national levels have received growing attention. In addition to UNDP’s elaboration of the HDI which expanded the measurement of development beyond gross national income, efforts at national level are increasingly focusing on measuring development progress in terms of wellbeing. As a case in point, in some developed countries such as the UK and France there have been national debates during the last few years regarding measurement of national wellbeing and happiness. The current interest in national happiness is perhaps an offshoot of Richard Easterlin’s 1974 study, known as Easterlin’s paradox, which suggested that higher incomes did not necessarily result in higher levels of happiness. Happiness studies, in part, measure how satisfied people are with their lives at a given point in time. Rather than focus on policies or programmes or budgetary provisions, the studies aim to understand changes in ordinary people’s quality of life as a result of these.

In fact, the Kingdom of Bhutan, a small Himalayan nation in South Asia bordered by India and China, has created the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) index as a measure of social progress which takes a holistic view of wellbeing. Originally coined in the early 1970s, the GNH is intended to provide an alternative to the gross national product (GNP) and includes non-economic aspects of quality of life. All this goes to show that indeed there is quite some interest in measuring progress across many countries, in a way that reflects ordinary people’s experiences.

This brings me back to the question posed by CCS: how do we measure the performance of state governments?’ My response is: by focusing on the indicators which reflect ordinary people’s life outcomes. The indicators provided in the Business Environment and Competitiveness among Nigerian States (BECANS) produced by the African Institute for Applied Economics do not provide a holistic of people’s experiences, neither do they adequately mirror the ‘welfare and security’ and ‘quality of life’ of citizens. In addition, CCS cites a World Bank report which is based on three broad indicators namely:  ‘the process by which those in authority are selected and replaced…capacity of government to formulate and implement…’ and ‘respect of citizens and state for institutions that govern interactions among them.’ Even if we had all the data for these areas cited, it would still not provide the full picture of citizens’ quality of life.

I do not believe that the indicators suggested by CCS sufficiently address the question raised. I would have expected therefore that in addition to the indicators he stated, national development frameworks such as the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) and vision 2020 are gleaned in order to identify a rich mix of indicators. A rich set of indicators need not be a potpourri of all things possible. A rich set should be one that captures the ‘national mood’ and effectively combines what ordinary people think with: what is already articulated as national policy and provisions of international development frameworks.

There are two possible approaches to doing this. The first is an objective measure which takes into account indicators ranging from education to health care to material conditions as it obtains in ordinary people’s lives. In a way such a measure – the national human development report – already exists in Nigeria, albeit led by the United Nations Development Programme. The second possible approach is to develop a subjective measure of how ordinary people perceive their quality of life. Both approaches are valid and provide interestingly unique ways of understanding people’s lives. For example, while an objective measure of education which looks at gender parity or enrolment levels may show improvements in access, a subjective measure may show the extent to which pupils are satisfied or happy with the school environment and the quality of teaching.

Taking these two approaches into account, the Nigerian Youth Social Indicators project (www.youth.org.ng), which I currently coordinate, has developed a set of indicators for measuring progress in youth development. The indicators draw on the provisions of the national youth policy, national development documents such as vision 20: 2020, internationally agreed frameworks such as the African Union’s Youth Charter and the UN’s world programme of action for youth and research on young people’s articulated aspirations. Our indicators are in ten categories: education, health, employment, crime, drug abuse, science and technology, sports and recreation, participation in decision making, family life and migration.  For these ten categories, a provisional list of 37 indicators –  which includes: percentage of SSCE credit passes in Mathematics and English Language; percentage of 20-34 year olds elected into State Houses of Assembly, etc., has been identified which, in my view could serve as a basis for a robust national discussion on measuring progress of youth development. I am the first to admit that this is a work in progress that needs further discussion and revision, but it sets the ball rolling. In addition, I cite the work of the youth indicators project as an illustrative list of holistic indicators of quality of life for a particular sub-population group.

CCS did mention some of the indicators we have in our list: number of credit level passes in the senior school certificate examinations, health outcomes, number of new jobs created, etc. However, these could have been the centre piece of his article, rather than on the side-lines of it. As he rightly notes, these are the ultimate indicators of progress and every state should in fact pay attention to improving and generating data on these issues. Fortunately, for some of these areas, like credit level passes in terminal external examinations, the data is readily available.

To me, no measure of development at national or sub-national level will be adequate without fully taking youth into account. So, I hope that in the long run, our set of indicators will provide a basis for measuring progress across the board, particularly as it concerns the state peer review mechanism, which although mimics the New Partnership for African Development African Peer Review Mechanism (NEPAD – APRM), could provide an objective basis to assess state’s development. The two published reviews for Anambra and Ekiti are a good first step. Even these reviews needed to be more critical and focus closely on outcomes rather than policies frameworks put in place in the states. Any measure of development needs to look beyond government houses and state ministries and departments. They should focus on people’s lives. After all development outcomes should for the most part be a reflection of the accounts of ordinary people.

To return again to CCS’ original question: how do we measure the performance of state governments, I will conclude by saying we should have a clear discussion on the indicators that exist for which we can find or generate comparable data across states. These indicators can be found in our national and state policy agendas, the articulated development pathways of the federal and state governments. In addition, ordinary people’s accounts of their aspirations and quality of life must be sought through rigorous studies.

I expect CCS’ initial article to spark a debate on the measurement of national progress starting from sub-national levels and perhaps a measure of national wellbeing and happiness in the long-run. After all, a study, years ago, claimed that Nigerians are the happiest people in the world. Is our happiness a result of boundless, unfounded and unrealistic optimism, or is it a result of something deeper? A measure of states’ and national progress could unravel this mystery.

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2 thoughts on “Measuring Progress at National and sub-National Levels

  1. Titus Udom

    Very educative. I’m working on a similar project to measure the impact of government expenditure on health and eductaion on selected indicators in Nigeria. Will be nice to connect with you on this.

  2. Hello Titus. Thank you for your feedback. I am happy to connect regarding your project. Please feel free to send me an email (dabesaki@gmail.com)

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