IN 1990, to challenge the prevailing view that national income was the best yardstick of a country’s progress, the United Nations Development Programme published its first Human Development Report, which measured success more broadly by adding life expectancy and literacy to the economic variable. This was “elegantly simple” (and certainly a bit simplistic) yet radical, and by shifting the focus of the debate it led to some dramatic changes in development policy around the world, concludes Helen Clark, the current head of the UNDP, in the 20th Anniversary issue of the report.
That is probably true. So is the fact there has been “significant progress by most countries in most areas” (which would probably have surprised most development experts 20 years ago), whilst several countries have moved backwards in absolute terms (which probably wouldn’t). There is a chart showing the best and worst performers here.
Harder to judge is what has been learnt during these past 20 years about what works in bringing about human development. Ms Clark’s conclusion is at once both strong—“there is much that countries can do to improve the quality of people’s lives even under adverse circumstances” and yet a bit wishy-washy: “Data from the past 40 years also reveal an enormous diversity of pathways… there is no single model or uniform prescription for success.”
Hopefully our understanding of what works will be increased by three significant upgrades to the methodology for measuring human development that have been implemented for the first time in this report. One is a new “multidimensional inequality” index, devised by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Index, which looks at other measures of inequality besides income, such as access to good housing, education and so on. The second looks at gender disparities. The third highlights areas of extreme deprivation.
Once again, this year’s Human Development Index is topped by Norway, followed by Australia, New Zealand and America (which seems to have benefited mightily from the new methodology, jumping from 13th place last year—which may surprise foreign critics of the land of the free). Britain places a disappointing 26th, down four places from a year ago, reflecting in particular a relatively low mean number of years of schooling for its population.
At the bottom, below Afghanistan in 155th place, are 14 countries from sub-Saharan Africa, with Zimbabwe bringing up the rear. Nonetheless, the reports authors note that many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have made significant progress over the past 20 years, especially on education, and that “since 2000 five—Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda and Uganda—are among the Top 10 Movers” up the rankings. The biggest ranking improvement in the past five years? Let’s hear it for Azerbaijan, up 16 places to 67th.