A major contribution of this Report is the systematic assessment of trends in key components of human development over the past 40 years (link to hybrid HDI 2.0). This retrospective assessment, an important objective for the 20th anniversary, is the most comprehensive analysis of the Report to date and yields important new insights.
In some basic respects the world is a much better place today than it was in 1990—or in 1970. Over the past 20 years many people around the world have experienced dramatic improvements in key aspects of their lives. Overall, they are healthier, more educated and wealthier and have more power to appoint and hold their leaders accountable than ever before. Witness, for example, the increases in our summary measure of development—the Human Development Index (HDI), which combines information on life expectancy, schooling and income in a simple composite measure.
The world’s average HDI has increased 18 percent since 1990 (and 41 percent since 1970), reflecting large aggregate improvements in life expectancy, school enrolment, literacy and income. But there has also been considerable variability in experience and much volatility, themes to which we return below.
Almost all countries have benefited from this progress. Of 135 countries in our sample for 1970–2010 (link to hybrid HDI 2.0), with 92 percent of the world’s people, only 3—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe (links to hybrid HDI 2.0)—have a lower HDI today than in 1970 (see figure 2.1 from the report). Overall, poor countries are catching up with rich countries in the HDI. This convergence paints a far more optimistic picture than a perspective limited to trends in income, where divergence has continued. But not all countries have seen rapid progress, and the variations are striking. Those experiencing the slowest progress are countries in Sub-Saharan Africa struck by the HIV epidemic and countries in the former Soviet Union suffering increased adult mortality.
The top HDI movers (countries that have made the greatest progress in improving the HDI) include well known income “growth miracles” such as China, Indonesia and South Korea. But they include others— such as Nepal, Oman and Tunisia—where progress in the nonincome dimensions of human development has been equally remarkable. It is striking that the top 10 list contains several countries not typically described as top performers. And Ethiopia comes in 11th, with three other Sub-Saharan African countries (Botswana, Benin and Burkina Faso) in the top 25. Links to hybrid HDI 2.0
Thus, the broader human development perspective provides an assessment of success very different from, say, that of the Spence Commission on Growth and Development. This perspective reveals that progress in health and education can drive success in human development— in fact, 7 countries enter the top 10 list thanks to their high achievements in health and education, in some cases even with unexceptional growth.
Not all countries have progressed rapidly, and the variation is striking. Over the past 40 years a quarter of developing countries saw their HDI increase less than 20 percent, another quarter, more than 65 percent. These differences partly reflect different starting points—less developed countries have on average faster progress in health and education than more developed ones do. But half the variation in HDI performance is unexplained by initial HDI, and countries with similar starting points experience remarkably different evolutions, suggesting that country factors such as policies, institutions and geography are important (figure 2.3 from the Report).
Health advances have been large but are slowing. The slowdown in aggregate progress is due largely to dramatic reversals in 19 countries. In nine of them—six in Sub-Saharan Africa and three in the former Soviet Union—life expectancy has fallen below 1970 levels. The causes of these declines are the HIV epidemic and increased adult mortality in transition countries (figure 2.5 from the Report).
Progress in education has been substantial and widespread, reflecting not only improvements in the quantity of schooling but also in the equity of access to education for girls and boys. To a large extent this progress reflects greater state involvement, which is often characterized more by getting children into school than by imparting a high-quality education (figure 2.8 from the Report).
Progress in income varies much more. Despite aggregate progress, there is no convergence in income—in contrast to health and education— because on average rich countries have grown faster than poor ones over the past 40 years. The divide between developed and developing countries persists: a small subset of countries has remained at the top of the world income distribution, and only a handful of countries that started out poor have joined that high-income group.
In sum, we see great advances, but changes over the past few decades have by no means been wholly positive. Some countries have suffered serious setbacks—particularly in health—sometimes erasing in a few years the gains of several decades. Economic growth has been extremely unequal—both in countries experiencing fast growth and in groups benefiting from national progress. And the gaps in human development across the world, while narrowing, remain huge.
Read the 2010 Report chapter on the trends: Chapter 2 - The advance of people [7,092 KB]