Twenty Years of Human Development in Six Affluent Countries

Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand,the United Kingdom, and the United States

2010 Occasional Paper
By Burd-Sharps, Sarah; Lewis, Kristen; Guyer, Patrick; Lechterman, Ted

This paper argues that a capabilities-based approach to measuring human development, while predominantly utilized in the Global South, is pertinent to that of the Global North also. Using tools like the Human Development Index allows for a more comprehensive understanding of well-being than purely economic measurements like GDP, and better identifies areas of need within countries. Disaggregated findings of health, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living—the basic building blocks of human development—show vast differences between and within six affluent nations (Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that cannot be explained by economics alone. For example, the greatest spender on health care in the group, the United States, has the lowest life expectancy, while the lowest spender, Japan, has the highest health life expectancy. While the HDI’s indicators do not capture all factors of human freedoms and capabilities, individual proxies for human development within the Index can be altered to increase its relevance and utility to affluent countries. Replacing literacy, for example, with educational attainment, and expanding the combined gross enrollment ration to include pre-school students allow for a more dynamic consideration of access to knowledge. The HDI presents an innovative approach to measuring well-being within affluent nations, and paints a more detailed picture of human development than by just economic growth alone.