Changing the rules

Every now and then in my household, we disconnect the cable TV and other similar devices and encourage the children to come up with their own entertainment. Invariably, my middle daughter and eldest of our last three, would invent a game.  Trouble rears its head when she loses at her own game, as she then changes the game rules.  If the initial rule of the game made the person with the most beads the winner, the moment she starts to lose, the rules would change mid-game to suit her so she always comes out on top. Her powers of persuasion are stellar and she could talk the tail off a dog and since she is the most creative, she always runs this particular gig.


Watching the children play again recently, a thought struck me:  Who sets the rules in international relations? It seems that whoever designs the game always comes out on top.  Why are Countries measured against development indicators that are set to economic parameters such as per capita income? Why are agricultural indicators are set against machinery per 100 sq. km of arable land, rather than farmers/workers per 100 sq. km? Instead of measuring the share of women employed in the non-agricultural sector, how about looking at the share of women involved in the agricultural sector? Who decided that in this particular measurement, the agricultural sector is any less important than the non-agricultural?


Among other thoughts, I wonder why health indicators do not measure herbal remedies, traditional healers passing on the art to a new generation, natural immunization of children through breast feeding and other homeopathic practices? Similarly, why does the measurement of births attended by skilled health staff not include doulas and traditional birth attendants?  For the longest time, the only acceptable measure of contraceptive prevalence is modern contraceptives. Insufficient recognition is given to natural contraception and anything that does not further the commercial interests of the capitalist nations that control the world. By the same token, measurement of death rates should take into account the nature and circumstances of death such as the quality of death in people who lived and died alone.


How about measuring social development parameters against deviancy, psychopathic crimes and teenage delinquency, community based care of the elderly, family values and cultural responsiveness?  Should we not measure environmental indicators against individual ecological responsibility and communities historically  living harmoniously with the environment? Perhaps we should pay more attention to ecological diversity and ratio of endangered native populations/plant and animal species, measuring those that have become extinct against those that are still thriving, rather than looking at government policies only?Perhaps if development indicators were to be set to different parameters, it is quite possible that the winners and losers in international relations are likely to be very different indeed.



Let us get down to some specifics. The United Nations is currently canvassing through an open consultation process, proposals for the Indicators that the world will adopt to measure progress of the Sustainable Development Goals.  Inputs have come in from governments and from civil society, the academia and private sector. For the first SDG, zero poverty is the goal and the first indicator is proportion of population living below $1.25/day.  It used to be 70 cents/day by the way, then it became a dollar/day, now it is $1.25/day.  Apparently, poverty can only be measured by the dollar and when the dollar loses value in the global currency market, poverty has to shift to align with the value of the dollar, rather than risk more Americans falling below the poverty line. Who cares if the currency of African countries has lost up to 50% of its value in the time under review?  Anyhow, a number of countries and interest groups have commented on this indicator. The Africa IAEG has already expressed concerns that the disaggregated employment status may be difficult for the national statistical systems of its members states to collect. That already means that the entire continent is placed at a disadvantage and at risk of falling dangerously behind in account of this factor. No prizes for how African countries will fare with this indicator.

Then there is the question: How is $1.25/day as cost of living actually measured? Is it measured by disposable income, cash earned per day, value of expenditure/consumption per day? Does it include access to in-kind resources that might have no corresponding value of measurement in western terms, such as food items ‘paid’ by persons farming on family land? Does it take adequate cognizance of persons who ‘live off the land’? How do we measure the dollar value per day of child care offered by a grandmother whose daughter is returning to school, engaging in petty trade or subsistence farming? How do we compute the monetary or dollar value of a meal of yams, vegetables and snails all sourced at the farm when compare with the dollar value of a meal bought in a supermarket in the West? How about consumption of organic food? Shouldn’t a meal of organic corn and ube eaten on the farm in Ughelli be valued higher than a meal of preservatives-laden TV dinner eaten in a cramped high rise apartment in New York? Or does it only matter when those organic food items are produced by multinational corporations quoted on the London stock exchange?

How do we address the question of national definitions of poverty? What are we to do with target 1.3: ‘percentage of population covered by social protection floors… pensions… benefits…’, as these do not leave any room for the measurement of family-derived social support, pensions and benefits – e.g. the grandmother mentioned earlier, for whom quality of life is significantly better living with her daughter and grandchildren than living alone? Perhaps we should quantify living with the extended family as a high index of quality of life even though it is difficult to quantify, rather than living in a state-funded home for the elderly, which costs the State tens of thousands of dollars?

Any way we slice it, it would appear that the main thrust of the indicators for the SDGs (as it was for the MDGs), is policy-driven, culturally-skewed, working towards the goal of straight-jacketed, conveyor-belt, mass produced, western- interpreted responses that do not leave enough room for existing non-western cultural responses to social issues. Instead, the indicators that are fashioned appear to be designed to undermine, frustrate and invariably destroy those cultural, family-based responses and place the welfare of individuals in the hand of the State. When we look at the western model of social welfare, what can we learn from the shifting of welfare from the family to the State and the inevitable shift in loyalty that goes along with it? What are we learning from the shift of the responsibility of child rearing, child discipline and social emancipation from the family to the State in the United States, for instance? This is the time to review the rules and parameters, engage and debate these issues before the SDG indicators are finalized and foisted on us all. If not, the results are already quite apparent and let’s face it: no one will need to guess who the winners and losers are going to be. After all’s said and done, the big question really is: “How culturally neutral are these indicators?”


About the Author

Oluwafunmilola Babalola is an international development executive, social change catalyst and Commentator. She is Managing Editor of, a forum for the virtual cultural agglomeration of people of African descent. Feelnubia is a member of Global Health South. To contact her, please send an email to:

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