Memos From the Developing World: The Human Opportunity Index

Imagine a country where your future does not depend on where you come from or what color your skin is. And imagine if there was a statistical tool to guide governments in making that a reality. There is.
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Imagine a country where your future does not depend on where you come from, how much your family owns, what color your skin is, or whether you are male or female. Imagine if personal circumstances, those over which you have no control or responsibility, were irrelevant to your opportunities and to your children's opportunities. And imagine if there was a statistical tool to guide governments in making that a reality. There is. It was created in 2008 by a consortium of researchers sponsored by the World Bank. It is called the Human Opportunity Index (HOI) and it may soon turn social policy upside down.

The HOI calculates how personal circumstances (e.g., birthplace, wealth, race, or gender) impact the probability a child has of accessing the services that are necessary to succeed in life (e.g., timely education, basic health, or access to electricity). When it was first applied to Latin America (a dataset representing 200 million children), the findings were eye-opening: behind the region's famously unequal distribution of development outcomes (among them, income, land ownership, and educational attainment), there is an even larger inequality of development opportunities. Not only are the rewards unequal; so too are the chances. The problem is not just about equality; it is about equity too -- the playing field is uneven from the start.

Efforts are currently underway to measure human opportunity in the US, in France, and in a selection of developing countries (some in Africa). And within countries, comparisons are being made across states and cities. What are we learning? Three things. First, there is now a way out of the endless, acrimonious debate over inequality -- a debate that has polarized politics in the developing world (and in much of the developed one as well). Should governments try to redistribute wealth or to protect private property rights? Should they try to enforce social justice or legal contracts? We will never reach universal agreement on that. But the idea of giving people equal opportunity early in life, whatever their socioeconomic background, is embraced across the political spectrum -- as a matter of fairness for the left and as a matter of personal effort for the right.

Second, the HOI, combined with the massive improvement in the quality of household surveys over the past decade, will make it possible to redirect social policy toward equity (where there is political consensus) and away from equality (where there is not). How? Many existing social policies and programs are already equity-enhancing. But focusing on equity reveals new points of emphasis along the individual's life-cycle. Early interventions, from pregnancy monitoring and institutional births, to toddlers' nutrition and neurological development, get a new sense of priority. So does preschool access (such as pre-kindergarten social interaction) and primary school achievement (such as reading standards and critical thinking). Physical security, reproductive education, mentoring, and talent screening in adolescents--all areas that are often overlooked--gain new relevance. A battery of legal and institutional pre-conditions becomes sine qua non, from birth certificates, voter registration and property titles, to the enforcement of anti-discrimination, antitrust, and access-to-information laws. And blanket subsidies, which at the margin are consumed by those who do not need them (free public college education for the rich, to name one), turn into opportunity-wasting aberrations. If anything else, the quest for equity will lead to a final push in the long process of subsidy focalization, and will spell the end-game for a way of giving out public assistance that was blind to the needs of the recipient--a way that was intrinsically unfair.

Third, there is a personal circumstance that seems to dominate all others. It is not you race or gender or birthplace or family wealth. Those are important, of course. But the single most powerful determinant of your chances in life appears to be your mother's education--not your father's, but your mother's. We don't quite know exactly why. It may have to do with effective rearing time (kids just spend more time with their moms than with anybody else). It may be peer pressure among mothers (if my friend's child already reads, mine will read too). Or it may be the way women learn and communicate (that careful attention to detail). Whatever the reason, educating girls today enhances equity for all tomorrow.

For more information on the Human Opportunity Index, go to

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