February 4, 2016

Country-level performance on public health, human rights and international development goals is notoriously hard to measure.

The co-authors (L-R) are Jeanne Luh, Ryan Cronk and Jamie Bartram.

The co-authors (L-R) are Dr. Jeanne Luh, Ryan Cronk and Dr. Jamie Bartram.

Recently, three researchers from the Water Institute at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health proposed a new way to track performance against such targets. Through a novel application of “frontier analysis,” which is based on the principles of data envelopment analysis, the method they describe can be used to measure performance on goals such as 100 percent access to improved drinking water.

The researchers are Jeanne Luh, PhD, program coordinator, Ryan Cronk, doctoral student of environmental sciences and engineering and graduate research assistant, and Jamie Bartram, PhD, Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor and director of the Water Institute.

“A hard-headed human rights perspective means being able to make clear and fair judgments about how well a country is fulfilling its obligations,” Bartram explains. “With formal recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation, this index allows us to laud the performers and shame the laggards. There are surprises on both lists.”

As the authors note, traditional indicators that measure performance against goals related to social good tend to focus on rates of change in status. These indicators do not account for different levels of development that countries experience, making it difficult to compare progress between countries.

To test the novel use of frontier analysis, the co-authors calculated country performance indices in maternal mortality ratio, poverty headcount ratio and primary school completion rate. By enveloping multiple fields and settings, the new approach offered a unique data source for consideration in assessing performance related to complex, moving targets.

The computations required to calculate this kind of performance index are more complex than established progress indicators. The performance indices, however, are advantageous because they can be used to make comparisons across settings (e.g., international/country-to-country) as well as over time (e.g., monitoring the progress of a single country across several years).

In addition to these comparisons, performance indices calculated using frontier analysis can identify the unfulfilled potential a country has to most effectively use its resources and thereby achieve the greatest possible progress.

“The biggest lesson here,” says Bartram, “is that most countries have the potential to do far, far better in improving the lives and livelihoods of their populations.”

The full article, titled “Assessing Progress Towards Public Health, Human Rights, and International Development Goals Using Frontier Analysis,” was published online January 26, 2016 by the journal PLOS One.


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu


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