The UN has produced its Human Development Report since 1990, and it’s an interesting way to track human progress over the years. For all the bad news stories that clog the news bulletins, it is indisputable that we’ve come a long way in that quarter century.
Millions of people have seen their incomes rise and their prospects widen. Millions have benefited from access to healthcare and education.
The graph below is from the latest edition, and it’s a nice summary of what’s happened. The left hand side shows 141 countries in 1990, grouped according to their level of development. At the top we have very highly developed countries – that’s those with life expectancy of around 80 years, an expected 16 years of education, and GDP per capita of around $40,000. Countries at the bottom have a life expectancy closer to 60, half as many years in school and GDP per capita under $3,000.
Between 1990 and today, here’s how countries have moved:
The obvious good news is a large number of countries have developed. Nobody’s gone backwards. From 12 highly developed countries in 1990, there are now 47. Some countries have even leaped a category entirely. Croatia, Argentina and Saudi Arabia all moved from ‘medium’ to ‘very high’. And that prominent little line splitting away from the red low human development category and making its way into the blue? That’s China.
There’s one other thing that stands out to me from this graph though: the higher up the scale you are, the easier it is to go higher still. Notice how the proportion of countries rising a category decreases as you read down the graph. Almost all the ‘high’ countries became ‘very high’ development. The majority of the medium development countries went up a category. But down at the bottom, most of the poorest countries stayed poor.
So it’s a matter of perspective. Yes, you can say that the globalisation project has worked, but it hasn’t worked for everybody in the same way. It doesn’t work nearly so well for those who need it most. You need a lot of global growth for the rich to deliver a sliver of growth to the poor. That’s not an argument for anti-globalisation, but it is a reminder that we don’t have a level playing field and development has to be pro-poor.
The Human Development Index doesn’t have a sustainability component, which unfortunately hides some of the environmental consequences of this progress (see the effect on biodiversity, for example.) With climate change in mind, the graph above takes on another level of significance. The higher up the scale, the bigger your contribution to global emissions is likely to be, while the lower you find yourself, the more vulnerable you’re going to be to a changing climate.
That means, unfortunately, that we cannot take ongoing progress for granted. We can’t assume that if we carry on with business as usual, we’ll eventually lift everybody out of poverty. A destabilised climate could claw back the fragile development gains in the poorest counties. If we fail to stop dangerous climate change, we may lock the poorest parts of the world out of development altogether.