Social & Economic Measures of Development

Instructor: Emily Cummins
Access to education, health care, and clean drinking water are all measures of what we call development. In this lesson, we'll talk about a number of social and economic indicators, such as infant mortality rate, to assess the level of development in a given place.


Do you have access to clean, running water? Enough food to eat? Access to health care and education? These basic necessities are part of what we refer to as development, which broadly refers to the basic standard of living that people in a particular place have. Development refers to everything from access to health care and education to whether or not people have food and shelter. Development is a broad term, but it is something that agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations are dedicated to increasing in countries across the world. Agencies like these seek to promote better lives for the world's poor, particularly in what we call underdeveloped countries, or countries with very low development.

So how do we measure development exactly? There are a number of different indicators that we use to understand the development of a particular country. Let's talk about this in more detail.

Social Indicators

When we talk about social indicators of development, we're talking about things that affect the well-being of individuals and communities. Social indicators are meant to help us understand how a community might be faring. One key measure of social development is access to healthcare. In many places inadequate access to healthcare leads to the prevalence of death by preventable diseases, such as diarrheal diseases. In many countries in the world, even access to things such as hospitable beds is limited. For example, in many parts of Africa there are fewer than 10 hospitable beds per 1,000 people.

Another major concern is access to appropriate sanitation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly a billion people do not have access to a toilet, which consequently contaminates drinking water and spreads infectious diseases.

Inadequate access to sanitation is an indicator of underdevelopment.
health; development

This limited access to healthcare can lead to a high infant mortality rate (IMR), or the number of children who die per every 1,000 born. The IMR is highest in sub-saharan and West Africa, as well as parts of the Middle East. The highest IMR is in Afghanistan, where there are approximately 112 deaths per 1,000 births. Pregnant women often do not have access to things such as prenatal care.

Darker colors on this map indicate areas with higher levels of infant mortality.
social; development

In contrast, the fertility rate is the number of children born per 1,000 women. (As an aside, this is much different from the biological potential one has to bear children, which is known as fecundity). Fertility rates are much higher in developing countries than in developed ones. The fertility rate is highest in parts of Africa and Asia. The highest fertile rates in the world are found in Afghanistan, where approximately five children are born to each woman, on average. In contrast, Singapore has the lowest fertility rate in the world, with approximately .82 children born per woman.

Why is this a social indicator? Fertility is related to things such as access to birth control or education about family planning. This is often lacking in countries that are highly underdeveloped. This helps to explain why fertility rates are generally higher in developing countries.

Another important social indicator is education. Agencies such as the World Bank tend to measure this according to a country's literacy rate, or the percentage of the people in a country who are able to read and write. The lowest rates of literacy are found in parts of Africa, where in countries such as Niger, only about 17% of people ages 15-24 are literate. In many parts of Europe, however, about 90-100% of people are literate.

While these measures are troubling, there have been some important improvements. According to the United Nations, the number of people living in extreme poverty, or on two U.S. dollars per day, has declined. Enrollment in school in many developing countries has also increased. And, while it is still high in many places, the infant mortality rate has declined overall in the last few decades.

Economic Indicators

One key measure of economic development is gross national income (GNI), which is basically the share of a country's total income that each person has. This statistic is calculated by dividing a country's total income by each person. In very poor countries, such as Niger and Mali, each person has less than $1,000 U.S. per capita per year (as an aside, per capita simply means per person).

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account