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The Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reviewed data from 135 countries with 92% of the world’s population. Instead of just looking at national income, the concept of a Human Development Index (HDI) was conceived by Pakistani Mahbu ul-Haq to measure life expectancy and literacy as well. It requires a radical rethinking of the belief that people care only about consumption. Part of human development is having a voice in planning; formal democracies have increased from less than a third of countries in 1970 to three-fifths in 2008.[i]

Researchers found uneven progress since the first HDI in 1990, with girls and women facing discrimination and of course extreme poverty in South Asia where half of the world’s poor live, and Sub-Saharan Africa, where 28% live. Foreign aid averages 44% of African government budgets.[ii] The former Soviet Union also lags behind in longevity of its people and inequality has increased. The financial crises of 2008 caused 64 million more people to fall below the $1.25 a day income poverty level, leading to rising income disparities.

On the bright side, the global life expectancy average climbed (1970 to 2010) from age 59 to 70 and school enrollment from 55% to 70%. The fastest progress was in East Asia–China, Indonesia, and South Korea, but the gap between developed and developing nations and men and women still exists. Rapid economic growth does not necessarily bring development of health care, education, employment, and recognition of human rights, although the top 10 countries on the HDI rankings are rich nations (Norway, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Ireland, Lichtenstein, the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden and Germany). These are also the most gender-equal countries, with the Netherlands at the top followed by Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.

The bottom HDI rankings are all African countries, but development can occur in low-income countries like Ethiopia, Cuba and Costa Rica because of low-cost innovations in health care and education. It depends on local cultures and progress is possible with resources most countries already have.[iii] The authors of the study were surprised by the “weak relationship between economic growth and improvements in health and education.”[iv] China, for example, ranks first in economic growth since reforms in the late 1970s, but public social services deteriorated or disappeared. Income inequalities increased and pollution is a widespread hazard. China is working to correct these problems in its current five-year plan. What counts is “putting equity and poverty at the forefront of policy” and adapting it to local conditions, as policies that work in one place may not fit in another.[v]

The greatest challenge to more progress in human development is environmental problems created by production and consumption patterns, by greenhouse gas emissions. Most developing countries struggle with the high costs and low availability of clean energy.[vi] Climate change may reduce grain yields, raising prices, leaving more people malnourished. They will have to cope with most of the world’s population growth, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

[i] Human Development Report 2010: The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development, United Nations Development Programme, p. 8.


[ii] Ibid, p. 111.

[iii] Ibid., p. 11.

[iv] Ibid, p. 2.

[v] Ibid., p. 11.

[vi] Ibid., p. 9.

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