Thursday, 26 June 2014

Measuring political will? Meeting the challenges around hunger and undernutrition

Debating development indexes 
The last few decades have seen an ‘index industry’ co-evolve with the development industry. This has become more diverse and sophisticated, expanding from country comparisons by growth and GDP, to the Human Development Index and the ‘Gross National Happiness’ index originally inspired by Bhutan. Many development sectors and specialisms have produced their own, with the Environment and Gender Index produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as just one recent example.

This diversity is to be applauded, offering a richer picture of the many kinds of change that comprise development. And measures – of economic growth, poverty, wellbeing, equality, health, education, environmental sustainability and much more – are important, for international agencies, donors, governments and publics alike. They enable targets to be set and progress tracked against them. They allow countries, regions or localities to be compared. They enable funders to evaluate the effectiveness of their spend. And crucially, they help inform citizens and publics in their efforts to hold governments to account.

Yet measures and indexes always, and rightly, spawn debate and controversy: over what they include and exclude, and over quantitative vs. qualitative, objective vs. subjective, and aggregative vs. disaggregative approaches. Clearly, as Einstein said, ‘not everything that matters can be measured.’ Reductive, expert-led approaches have a way of air-brushing the diverse values, contextual experiences, and perspectives on what progressive change means that sometimes matter most, especially to people living in poverty and marginalisation.

Such debates swirled around the Millennium Development Goals, and are picking up again as 2015 approaches and Sustainable Development Goals must be translated into targets and indicators.

From outcomes to commitments
Most indexes and indicators focus on outcomes. And when those aren’t achieved, a common recourse is to blame ‘lack of political will’. This must be one of the most over-used, and least satisfactory, phrases in development policy analysis. But can one go further to unpack and measure ‘political will’, and develop indexes of that?

This is just what the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI) has been doing. The second HANCI was released today – with some important insights for the development index industry.

HANCI aims to develop a credible measure of governments’ commitment to reduce hunger and undernutrition, to help focus support and pressure for change. Measuring hunger and nutrition outcomes alone offers an inadequate accountability mechanism, largely because attribution is so difficult. When outcomes trend positively, governments can claim credit (perhaps falsely), and when they trend badly, governments get the blame (perhaps unfairly).

The HANCI thus aims to measure government commitment (‘political will’), as revealed in action in three areas: law, policies, spending. The index comprises 45 countries with severe or alarming hunger and undernutrition statuses, and looks at their commitment across the board based on 22 indicators. Importantly, HANCI looks at the commitment to reduce hunger and nutrition separately. This is because, understanding the difference between hunger and nutrition is imperative to tackling them. For instance, measures to improve sanitation are critical for improving nutrition, though less clearly related to hunger. Conversely, emergency food aid, or subsidised food in ration shops can help to reduce acute hunger, but are often not aimed at achieving a balanced diet.

So what does this index tell us?  
Well it seems that some of the poorest developing countries such as Afghanistan, Burundi and Liberia are increasing their commitments to reduce hunger and undernutrition. However, while some countries are gaining momentum, there are many within the Index that are stagnating or even declining. At the top of the ranking is Guatemala, yet they have made little improvement in a year and are closely followed by Peru and Malawi. At the bottom of HANCI, contrary to those countries making clear efforts to take action, some countries including Sudan, Myanmar and Guinea Bissau have stagnated or dropped in their commitments.

Ambiguities and opportunities
Many indexes hide their weightings, and it is good that the HANCI is so methodologically explicit. Yet this does raise some key questions and challenges for any index. Whose preferences and weightings count? And how far can, and should one aggregate? It would be interesting to explore the effects of changing weightings amongst indicators within themes changed – is a constitutional right to food more or less important than women’s land rights? Is government spending on agriculture vs. health a more important indicator of commitment? Of course here things become more complicated, since assessment depend not just on who you are, but also very much on the national and local context. It implies unpacking ‘government political commitment’ into decisions and actions that might be taken by different departments and agencies – Ministries of agriculture and ministries of public health, for instance. These may have different priorities and relationships with their citizenry in different national settings. Political cultures and histories will affect how these aspects of ‘political will’ emerge and are manifested, as well as how publics might act to influence them.

A disaggregated view that attends to diverse assessments of what counts as political commitment provides a richer picture, enabling a broadening-out of assessments, and an opening-up of ways that they might contribute to change in different contexts. Different methodologies would have roles to play here – those elucidating qualitative perceptions and change narratives, for instance, or approaches such as Multi-Criteria Mapping.

What is clear is that debates about how to measure and rank development performance, whether in terms of outcomes or political will, are not going to go away anytime soon. The HANCI is a path-breaking contribution around key global challenges of our times. But it also invites some key broader reflections on methodology and context, signalling why it is so important to keep this debate alive, multi-dimensional, and inclusive.


  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking overview not just of the HANCI but of the debates it highlights about indexes and indicators. NGOs & CBOs operating in development have a love/hate relationship with the latter. We love them because they give some structure to conversations on change and measuring change and we hate them for the ways in which they are often wielded as a blunt, inflexible instrument, insensitive to nuance, emergence and the complexities of social change.

  2. Thank you Melissa for your excellent discussion. You are very right pointing out that any index methodology involves researchers making choices, and it is critical to be clear about these as they have a bearing on index results.
    The HANCI team thus devised a simple methodology to gain an insight in how non-researchers would identify alternative weighting schemes. Accordingly, communities suffering from hunger and undernutrition, as well as professionals from governments, donors, CSOs and private sector working on these issues in Bangladesh, Malawi and Zambia identified their own weighting preferences.
    Website visitors can see how their preferences generate alternative rankings, and can use a nifty weighting tool to see how their own priorities affect rankings (
    HANCI evidence is hence very much a starting rather than an end point for discussions on the kinds of commitment needed to eliminate hunger and undernutrition. By continuing to work very closely with local advocacy groups, communities, and political actors and other stakeholders, the HANCI team seeks to make sure that evidence is sensitive to and relevant for local debates about political commitment.
    This also raises one more critical question for the index industry: do indices drive change and if so, under what conditions? So far, no-one has been able to tell me, and despite the current proliferation of indices, relatively little is known in this respect. Accordingly, the HANCI team will in the coming year seek to make a critical contribution towards addressing this essential question.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.