PQLI: A new yardstick to replace ‘per capita income’

By Zubeida Mustafa

THERE was a time when the sole yardstick to measure the level of development of a country was the conventional economic indicator, namely, the per capita income. But economists have now discovered the fallacy of this approach. A country can have a high per capita GNP and yet be severely underdeveloped in terms of the quality of life it can provide to its people.

Very often the national wealth happens to be concentrated in the hands of a few people and the Government’s priorities are such that the social sectors are totally neglected. In such cases the GNP can be quite misleading for it hardly reflects the level of development of the people. Hence economists have come to adopt the basic needs approach and now more emphasis is placed on the social sectors, especially education and health. Thus the conventional economic indicators are no longer the only measure of national development.

A new yardstick has had to be evolved to measure the level of national development in the context of the quality of life a state provides its citizens. This called the “Physical Quality of Life Index,” or PQLI in short. This is calculated by taking into account three elements, namely, the rate of infant mortality, literacy ratio and life expectancy at age one. Each of these is put on a scale with a high of hundred (representing the highest any country is expected to achieve by the year 2000) and a low of zero (representing the lowest rate prevailing anywhere in the world in 1950).

The PQLI gives equal weight to each of these indicators and averages them into a single measure of the well-being of a given population. The PQLI is a good test of a government’s commitment to work for the uplift of the people. It also indicates how well a government can plan and how correctly – its priorities are ordered.

Governments here have lacked the political will to improve the quality of life of the people

Thus, the West European countries, the United States and Japan have a PQLI ranging from 94 to 98. That of the USSR and East European states is between 90 and 92. But it has now been conclusively established that the road to health and education does not have to be lined with gold. Some countries with limited resources have managed to do remarkably well in lowering infant mortality rate and raising life expectancy and literacy ratios by investing their funds wisely in the social sector. Sri Lanka has done remarkably well with a PQLI of 81. Pakistan’s case is quite instructive. With a literacy rate of 26 per cent, infant mortality rate of 126 per thousand live births and life expectancy of 5^years its PQLI is dismally low, although its per capita income is much higher than that of a number of Asian countries. That is because governments here have lacked the political will to improve the quality of life of the people and only a small fraction of the budget_is spent on the social sectors. Although the Sixth Five-Year Plan promises to bring about a shift in priorities, it is by no means certain that the sums targetted for health and education will actually be allocated and spent. It is significant that some countries with a low per capita income have a high PQLI while others with a high income have a low PQLI. The following table is quite revealing.

Country   Per Capita          PQLI (1978)

                   Income 1978

Pakistan            $ 240                        38

India                  $ 180                         43

China                  $ 230                         71

Sri Lanka            $ 200                        81

Burma                 $ 140                         53

Philippines         $ 570                         72

Thailand            $ 530                         75

Vietnam              $ 170                        59

Source: Dawn 18 Feb 1984