Still the “Bestest” and the “Worstest” and Maybe the Most Opaque: Cuba in the 2010 UNDP Human Development Report

By Arch Ritter

The 2010 UNDP Human Development Report , published on November 5, 2010, presents the definitive and much-awaited “Report Card” on the social, economic, political, environmental and security dimensions of development for all countries of the world. In this Report, Cuba fares well in some indices, badly on others, but is also “out-of-the-running” on the major UNDP Human Development Indices due to lack of reliable information.

The whole of the UNDP Human Development Report can be accessed here:   2010http://hdr.undp.org/en/mediacentre/

Here are a few of the interesting comparative insights and results for Cuba.

1.      Main Human Development Indices

Cuba is excluded from the main Human Development Indices that the UNDP presents, namely the Human Development Index (Table 1), the Inequality-adjusted Human development Index (HDI) (Table 2) and the Multidimensional Poverty Index (Table 5)  as well as the HDI Trends from 1980 to 2010 (Table 3). This is unfortunate because it is not possible this year to make a comparison of Cuba with other countries or with itself over time.

Due to the existence of the dual exchange rate system in which there is no reasonable single exchange rate, together with the complexity of the highly segmented markets – underground economy, rationing system, farmer’s markets, non-market allocation of some goods and services, and quasi-dollar stores – it was concluded by the UNDP that it was impossible at this time to construct a measure of GDP per capita in purchasing power terms as is done for some 169 other countries. . The UNDP apparently is working with the Government of Cuba to correct this situation. The UNDP’s explanation of the problem is presented in Appendix 1.

2.      Gender Inequality Index

Cuba comes first in Latin America and 47th in the world for this measure, which includes maternal mortality rates, adolescent fertility rate, share of parliamentary seats held by each sex, attainment at secondary and higher education, labor market participation rates, contraception availability, and births attended by health personnel (Table 4).

3.      “Empowerment”” Measures

In a new dimension of its analysis (Table 6), the UNDP brings together a variety of indicators of human “empowerment.”  Cuba fares uniformly badly, and indeed worst in Latin America for many measures:

  • “Democracy”: worst in Latin America;
  • “Press Freedom”: worst in the world, including China;
  • “Satisfaction with Freedom of Choice”: worst in Latin America, with 26% and 28% satisfaction for males and females respectively;
  • “Journalists Imprisoned”: worst in the world with the exception of  China;
  • “Human Rights Violations”: among the worst.

4.      Education

Cuba fares well in education generally (Table 13). One notable feature of Cuba’s comparative experience is that it has the largest tertiary education enrolment in the Hemisphere and the world at 121.5% compared to an average of 36.5% for all of Latin America.

How can this be? Presumably more people than are in the normal tertiary education age cohort are attending colleges or University. This is the result of increasing the supply of tertiary education, by creating alleged “Universities” in every Municipality, plus an increase in the demand for higher education by those who have been put out of work in various areas including the sugar sector. It is difficult to know without further information if the 121.5% figure represents an achievement or a gross misallocation of resources given that Cuba needs to produce real products in agriculture and industry, and seems to be overproducing university graduates – not unlike some higher income countries .

5.      Health

As is well-known, Cuba also fares well in health measures and has been particularly successful in squeezing strong health outcomes from very scarce resources (Table 14).

One interesting measure is the number of doctors per 10,000 people that stands at 64 for Cuba. This again is the highest ration by far in Latin America and the world. Again, this looks like an over-allocation of resources to the “doctor” category in health. However, given that the 30,000 doctors abroad are now the largest earner of foreign exchange for Cuba, it is likely that this over-abundant resource is now being used effectively.

6.      Access to Information and Communications Technology.

Cuba’s performance is in communications and access information is also the weakest in the Hemisphere. Here are a number of indicators noted by the UNDP (Table 16).

  • The access of Cubans to land-line and mobile telephones stands at 13%. This is by far the lowest in the Hemisphere. Even the lower income countries in the region have much higher access to telephones, with Haiti at 33%, Nicaragua 60%, Guatemala 120%; Grenada 86%, El Salvador 131%, Paraguay 103%m and Honduras 96%.
  • The cost of a mobile telephone connection in Cuba is by far the highest in the world, at $120.00.  Obviously this limits the demand for mobile connections and helps explain Cuba’s 13% access rate.
  • Access to the internet is particularly low at 12.9 per 100 persons, though not the lowest in the Hemisphere.
  • The proportion of the population with personal computers was estimated at 5.6 per 100 persons, again low but not the lowest in the Hemisphere.

This illustration shows the HDI trajectories for all countries of the world from 1980 to 2010, excepting Cuba and a few others.
Appendix !: Purchasing power parity conversions and the HDI: an illustration with the case of Cuba (Source: UNDP,  HDR 2010, p.138).

The HDI uses internationally comparable data on gross national income (GNI) per capita from the World Bank (2010g). These data are expressed using a conversion factor that allows comparisons of prices across countries. This conversion, known as purchasing power parity (PPP), is necessary to take into account differences in the value of a dollar across countries.  Four countries have data on all HDI components except for GNI: Cuba, Iraq, Marshall Islands and Palau. For three of these countries (Cuba, Marshall Islands and Palau) this is due to the fact that they do not participate in the International Comparisons Program. Iraq lacks information about GNI for the last 10 years.
To illustrate the options and problems that arise in attempting to reliably estimate GNI per capita in PPP terms, Cuba is used as an example. One well known approach to estimating GNI—used by the Center for International Comparisons of Production, Income and Prices at the University of Pennsylvania (Heston, Summers and Aten 2009)—is a regression that relies on data from the salaries of international civil servants converted at the official exchange rate. However, because the markets in which foreigners purchase goods and services tend to be separated from the rest of the economy, these data can be a weak guide to the prices citizens face in practice. The Center for International Comparisons of Production, Income and Prices recognizes this problem, rating its own estimate of Cuba’s GDP as a “D” (the lowest grade).
An alternative estimate applies the exchange rate used in Cuba and the PPP conversion of an economy with similar attributes, but this method goes against the principle of using a country’s legally recognized exchange rate and prices to convert its national aggregates to an international currency. Another option is to not apply any PPP correction factor to the official exchange rate for convertible pesos. Both of these options yield far lower estimated income than the PPP correction does. The wide variation in income estimates arising from these different techniques indicates that no single robust method exists in the absence of reliable data.
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