‘Social indicators’ started it all

By: Mahar Mangahas - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | June 03,2023 - 07:45 AM

The first time I encountered the term “social indicators” was in 1973, in a draft research agenda for the Development Academy of the Philippines (DAP) shared by Dr. Onofre D. Corpuz (OD) at a private meeting with academic friends, including myself. The DAP had just been created by Presidential Decree No. 205 (6/6/73)—thus it marks its golden anniversary on Tuesday.

OD asked if any of us would be interested in some part of the agenda, which had been drafted, we were told, by Jolly (Jose Conrado) Benitez, who was newly back from studies at Stanford. At the time, I was assistant professor of economics at the University of the Philippines (UP). I hadn’t heard of “social indicators” before but volunteered for it if it included measurement of poverty. OD just replied, “That would be up to you.” (My favorite OD quote is: “If you think you have freedom, then act freely.”) I discovered that social indicators (SI) was named so as to be distinguished from economic indicators, which meant, above all, the gross national product and other numbers of use to the rich and powerful, rather than the poor and lowly. Those interested in SI were mainly sociologists. Economists were regarded as hardhearted and biased against the poor; I found that offensive.

Research in SI would necessarily involve multiple dimensions of well-being, called “social concerns.” I proposed several dimensions, for each made a budget for at least one research associate and one research assistant over a one-year project duration, recruited the team, and directed the research. DAP financed all the costs.

The outcome was the 574-page book, “Measuring Philippine Development: Report of the Social Indicators Project,” edited by myself, published by DAP in 1976. Its 10 chapters are: “Social indicators for health and nutrition,” by Vicente Paqueo; “Indicators for learning,” by Ruperto Alonzo; “Indicators of economic well-being,” by Leonardo Sta. Romana III; “Philippine poverty thresholds,” by Ma. Alcestis Abrera; “The physical environment: welfare indicators,” by Felipe Medalla and Reynaldo Tabbada; “The measurement of public safety and justice in the administration of the law,” by Eleanor Elequin and Barbara Jo Lava; “Indicators of political opportunity and political welfare,” by Elsa Jurado; “Indicators of social mobility,” by Jennifer Lauby; “A pilot survey on social indicators,” by Georgina Ochoa and Cecilia Carreon-Eco; and my summary, “The measurement of Philippine national welfare.” For me, the inclusion of political indicators was key to demonstrating the project’s independence from the martial law regime.

The DAP Social Indicators Project (SIP) recommended a set of 30 major indicators of Philippine welfare, including their frequency of estimation. A number of indicators were experimental: the number of days disabled due to illness; the value of human capital stock created by schooling; net beneficial product; the proportions of families below a food poverty threshold and a total poverty threshold; an air pollution index for Greater Manila; indexes of citizens’ perception of public safety and justice; indexes of political mobility, participation, awareness, dissent, and efficacy; and indexes of occupational mobility, openness of occupations, and perceived social mobility. To test its ideas, the project conducted a pilot survey of 1,000 households in Batangas province in June-July 1974.

As the project went on, we researchers continuously shared and tested our ideas before government managers. This tied into the DAP’s development of a Career Executive Service, a civilian counterpart of the career military service—OD’s dissertation research at Harvard was on the Philippine bureaucracy.

I moved on to chair the project, Population, Resources, Environment, and the Philippine Future (PREPF) in 1976-77. This was a collection of studies looking toward the year 2000, done by the UP Population Institute (under National Scientist Mercedes Concepcion), DAP, and the UP School of Economics. Its findings are in the book “Probing Our Futures,” published by the troika in 1980.

On the basis of the SIP, I was hired by the United Nations Children’s Fund as social indicators consultant for the Prime Minister’s Department in Malaysia (1977-78) and for the Central Bureau of Statistics of Indonesia (1981). UP economics dean Jose Encarnacion Jr. generously allowed me to go on leave from my faculty work for those overseas Filipino worker stints.

In 1981, DAP executive vice president Jose P. “Ping” de Jesus told me privately that the SIP was the most popular of all DAP projects at that time. He then offered me a full-time job at DAP, to head a new department called Research for Development (RfD). If I accepted, then what should the next steps in the research be?


Contact: mahar.mangahas@sws.org.ph.


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