Nighttime lights as a proxy for human development at the local level

Nighttime lights, calculated from weather satellite recordings, are increasingly used by social scientists as a proxy for economic activity or economic development in subnational regions of developing countries where disaggregated data from statistical offices are not available. However, so far, our understanding of what nighttime lights capture in these countries is limited. We use geo-referenced Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) from 29 African countries to construct indicators of household wealth, education and health for DHS cluster locations as well as for grid cells of roughly 50 × 50 km. We show that nighttime lights are positively associated with these location-specific indicators of human development, and that the variation in nighttime lights can explain a substantial share in the variation in these indicators. We conclude that nighttime lights are a good proxy for human development at the local level.