The U.N.’s Human Development Report Shows Life Is Getting Better—and Money Isn’t the Only Reason

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Life is getting better on planet Earth. World Perspective / Amana Images / Corbis

Sometimes, I admit, this green beat can be a little depressing. Shrinking icecaps. Rising seas. Endangered species. Air pollution. Acidifying oceans. Oil spills. Invasive Asian carp. And perhaps worst of all, the United States Senate. It can seem as if life is getting is worse every day—like a Beatles record played backwards.

But take a step back and look at the big picture, because life on Earth has been getting better for the most part—at least for human beings. That’s the message from the U.N.’s 2010 Human Development Report (HDR), a massive analysis of data related to human well-being. (Download a PDF of the full report here.) People around the planet are healthier, richer and better educated than they were 40 years ago—and developing countries are leading the way. Much of that progress is occurring in fast-developing Asia—where Indonesia and China in particular have catapulted their people out of poverty—but some Arab nations and countries in Latin America have grown quickly as well.

That progress, however, goes beyond the simplified measurement of income. The report uses the Human Development Index, a rough measurement developed 20 years ago by the Pakistani economist Mahbub u-Haq and the Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amaryta Sen, which uses health, education and other social goods, in addition to income, to get a provide a more meaningful metric of human well-being. What the 2010 HDR shows is that while sheer economic growth is a vital part of national development—witness Asia’s astonishing growth over the past few decades—it’s not enough on its own. Access to health and education, measurements of economic and gender inequality, all play a part in human development—in building human progress. “We have learned today that while economic growth is very important, what ultimately matters is using national income to give all people a chance at a longer, healthier and more productive life,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon at the presentation of the report today in New York.

Start taking social gains into consideration, and the recent history of development can look a little different. Take China for example. Based on increases in income alone, the country is by far the biggest gainer in development over the past 40 years—as anyone who has had a chance to see China’s rapidly growing cities would know. Its economy has grown by an average of 8% a year over the past three decades, according to the report, and monetary poverty measures have fallen more than 80% between 1981 and 2005. But those income improvements haven’t always been match by advances in life expectancy, health or education. As a result, China is only 79th out of 135 nations in terms of improving life expectancy and schooling over the past four decades. Income inequality has skyrocketed in China as well, as the country’s economic revolution has produced a new class of billionaires, while in the countryside extreme poverty still exists, as the report’s authors note:

Slow progress was associated with decentralizing the financing of basic services without providing adequate national support or increasing the fees levied on families. Public social services deteriorated and in some places even collapsed.

Meanwhile nations that are still relatively poor can show marked improvement on the index thanks to social factors. The Himalayan country of Nepal, which is just emerging from a long and bloody civil war, was the second fastest improving nation on the Human Development Index (HDI), after Oman, due less to economic growth that wider availability for health and education, and lower levels of inequality. As Helen Clark, the head of the U.N. Development Programme, wrote in the report:

It is now universally accepted that a country’s success or an individual’s well-being cannot be evaluated by money alone. We must also gauge whether people can lead long and healthy lives, whether they have the opportunity to be educated.

Inequality in particular complicates the picture—it’s the first time that the HDR has taken into account the impact of inequality, and on average inequality reduced countries’ scores on the index by 22%. That makes for some interesting comparisons—China’s HDI was reduced by 23% due to inequality, while India’s fell by 30%, meaning that growth in autocratic China may actually be more egalitarian than democratic India. (India is, after all, a country where a multi-billionaire can build an entire residential tower just for his family in Bombay, a city where millions still live in teeming slums.)

Unsurprisingly, then, rich but also egalitarian countries like Norway, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Sweden all rank in the top 10, which also includes the U.S. at number four. (Adjust for income inequality, however, and the U.S. would fall to number 12.) The worst performers are mostly found in southern Africa, with Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe bringing up the rear. Those countries have suffered under the twin impacts of AIDS and civil conflict, but even the poorest nations have, on the whole, improved in recent decades. (Exceptions might be made for countries like Russia and Ukraine, which have actually seen life expectancy fall in recent years—but even that should be balanced by the end of communism and greater, though still troubled, political and civil freedoms.) The world’s average HDI rating has increased 18% since 1990 and 41% since 1970. Over the past 40 years average life expectancy has risen from 59 to 70 years, school enrollment has grown from 55% of all primary and secondary-age children to 70% and per capita GDP has doubled to more than $10,000. There’s still a long way to go, but for all the doom and gloom that seems to surround the human race today, things are actually getting better. As Sen wrote in the introduction to the report:

Twenty years after the appearance of the first Human Development Report, there is much to celebrate in what has been achieved. But we also have to be alive to ways and means of improving the assessment of old adversities and of recognizing—and responding to—new threats that endanger human well-being and freedom.

Of course, for all that good news, the UNHDR is very much a human-focused look at the state of the planet. And while life has improved for people on the whole, for much of the rest of the natural world, things are not getting better. Extinctions are speeding up, and habitat for other species is growing fragmented, as wilderness is cleared to build farms and settlements. And while climate change may not have yet impacted the rate of human progress, a warming world might reduce or even reverse development in the future—especially since it will be the poorest countries in the world that will suffer the brunt of climate change.

A few weeks ago the World Wildlife Fund put out a report arguing that human demand on the biosphere had doubled since 1961, and that right now we’re using natural resources—forests, clean water, farmland—faster than they’re being replenished. At this rate, by 2030 we’ll need the equivalent of two Earths to keep up with our demand. It’s a sobering thought as we justly celebrate the pace of human progress. In the great recession of 2008, we discovered what happens when we burn through our capital and spend beyond our means—eventually, we crash. What if human progress is built on the equivalent of deficit spending? And what happens when the bill comes due?