I bet you didn’t know that the United Nations puts a value on the life of people around the world. What’s even more surprising is just how cheap the life of a Zimbabwean is deemed to be: it deems that adding one year to Zimbabwean life expectancy is worth just 51 cents per person.
This awkward valuation is in the newest edition of the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, which knits together measures of education, life expectancy and income into a single number meant to measure a nation’s development.
One feature of this kind of index –combining different types of indicators– is that it necessarily establishes an equivalency between changes in each of them: a decline along one dimension of development –life expectancy, say—can be compensated by an increase along another –say income. This puts a monetary value on increasing life spans. Applied to Zimbabwe, the U.N. is suggesting that adding a year to the average Zimbabwean’s lifespan provides as much extra “human development” as increasing her income by 51 cents.
These calculations are by Martin Ravaillon of the World Bank, who notes that the monetary value of life expectancy is lower in poor countries like Zimbabwe precisely because they have very low incomes. Increasing their income would improve their wellbeing a lot, even at the expense of some reduction in life expectancy. When governments of poor countries pursue economic growth at all costs, polluting their air, land and rivers along the way, they are thinking in terms of these trade-offs.
Ravaillon is nonetheless unsettled by the low valuation the UN’s index puts on longevity in poor countries. By contrast, it deems that adding one year to the lifespan of oil-rich Qataris is worth $9,000 per person.