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At 21, the Human Development Report and its message of equity in 2011

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Today, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) will release its 2011 Human Development Report, the 21st in the annual series that lets us know how well – or not – the populations in countries are doing. Whether on education, health, income, poverty, cost-of-living the human development indices are now well-constructed and evolved measures of the well-being of people. Today, we’ll know a little more about how 7 billion people live on our Earth.

This year’s ediition is called  ‘Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All’. The HDR website has said the report will call for the urgent global challenges of sustainability and equity to be addressed together – and that the 2011 HDR identifies policies on the national and global level that could spur mutually reinforcing progress towards these interlinked goals.

These introductory articles are uniformly boring and uniformly useless to all those who deal with real questions, hard quetions and tough decisions every day. They say things like “bold action is needed if the recent human development progress for most of the world’s poor majority is to be sustained” and things like “the benefit of future generations as well as for those living today”.

The excitingly squiggly colourful HDI lines that debuted in 2010

This is irritating, but has become part of the HDI furniture. For some perverse reason top politicians and top UN agency muckamucks seem unwilling to cut the waffling and get on with it. Anyway. we’re interested in the rest of the report, the data, the statistics, the methodologies, the background studies and a whole bunch of related research – so that’s what this and related HDI posts will dwell on in the weeks to come.

The HDR website has mentioned that the 2011 report will talk about living standards. Here’s a sentence I want to read more about when the big package opens up: “Yet the 2011 Report projects a disturbing reversal of those trends if environmental deterioration and social inequalities continue to intensify, with the least developed countries diverging downwards from global patterns of progress by 2050.” What are the numbers that led to this prickly insight, I would very much like to see.

Look for these in the 2011 edition:
UNDP HDR 2011 International Consultations
UNDP HDR 2011 Advisory Panels
UNDP HDR 2011 Human Development Seminars
UNDP HDR 2011 Commissioned Research

Let’s look back. A year ago, in 2010 November, UNDP when releasing the HDR 2010 said that “most developing countries made dramatic yet often underestimated progress in health, education and basic living standards in recent decades, with many of the poorest countries posting the greatest gains”. HDR 2010 cautioned that “patterns of achievement vary greatly, with some countries losing ground since 1970”.

Overall, HDR 2010 showed that life expectancy climbed from 59 years in 1970 to 70 in 2010, school enrolment rose from just 55 percent of all primary and secondary school-age children to 70 percent, and per capita GDP doubled to more than US$10,000 (sorry, but this last is a particularly meaningless number). Life expectancy, for example, rose by 18 years in the Arab states between 1970 and 2010, compared to eight years in sub-Saharan Africa. The 135 cuntries studied include 92 percent of the world’s population.

The visual designing coup of 2010

Within the pattern of overall global progress, the variation among countries is striking, said HDR 2010. Over the past 40 years – that is, tilll 2010 – the lowest performing 25 percent experienced less than a 20 percent improvement in HDI performance, while the top-performing group averaged gains of 54 percent. Yet as a group, the quartile of countries at the bottom of the HDI scale in 1970 improved faster than those then at the top, with an average gain of 61 percent. Somewhat zanily, HDR 2010 then advised us that “the diverse national pathways to development documented … show that there is no single formula for sustainable progress”. Umm, we did somehow notice that, all by ourselves actually.

What was enormously useful in HDR 2010 were three new indices that the world’s rambunctious and usually argumentative development community has still not grasped firmly with opposable thumbs. These are:
• The Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) – For the first time, this year’s Report examines HDI data through the lens of inequality, adjusting HDI achievements to reflect disparities in income, health and education. The HDI alone, as a composite of national averages, hides disparities within countries, so these adjustments for inequality provide a fuller picture of people’s well-being.
• The Gender Inequality Index (GII) – The 2010 Report introduces a new measure of gender inequities, including maternal mortality rates and women’s representation in parliaments. The Gender Inequality Index is designed to measure the negative human development impact of deep social and economic disparities between men and women.
• The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) – this is the equivalent of the 400-pound gorilla for all HDI-related stuff – it complements income-based poverty assessments by looking at multiple factors at the household level, from basic living standards to access to schooling, clean water and health care. About 1.7 billion people—fully a third of the population in the 104 countries included in the MPI—are estimated to live in multidimensional poverty, more than the estimated 1.3 billion who live on $1.25 a day or less.

So, while waiting for the goodies from HDR 2011, there are some questions that still smoulder from earlier editions. Here’s one: what does the evidence from the past 40 years tell us about the relationship between growth and changes in human development? The two-panel chart which accompanies this post (below) presents the basic result. The left panel shows a positive association — though with substantial variation — suggesting that growth and improvements in human development are positively associated.

Remember, however, that income is part of the HDI; thus, by construction, a third of the changes in the HDI come from economic growth, guaranteeing a positive association. That’s why a far more useful exercise is to compare income growth with changes in the non-income dimensions of human development (gift economies would be wonderful subjects). This has been done using an index similar to the HDI but calculated with only the health and education indicators of the HDI to compare its changes with economic growth. The non-income HDI is presented in the right panel of the chart – looking for the correlation? Remarkably weak and statistically insignificant, as they said so themselves.

That will deliver a smart kick in the collected pants of the G20 muckamucks when they assemble (what? again!) in France (Cannes) for a new episode of creative bullshitting fiscal sophistry. But, here’s the strange thing. Previous studies have found the same result. One of the first scholars to study this link systematically was US demographer Samuel Preston, whose landmark 1975 article showed that the correlation between changes in income and changes in life expectancy over 30 years for 30 countries was not statistically significant. As ideas such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘environmental’ began gaining traction from the early 1970s onwards – think ‘Limits to Growth‘ – more data became available, and other researchers obtained the same result. In a 1999 article, ‘Life during Growth‘, William Easterly found a remarkably weak association between growth and quality of life indicators such as health, education, political freedom, conflict and inequality. Easterly’s work was ignored by the bankers and their compradors for years thereafter.

Next, François Bourguignon, director of the Paris School of Economics, and several African and European colleagues concluded that “the correlation between GDP per capita growth and nonincome [Millennium Development Goals] is practically zero”. That should have been turned into a poster and hung on the wall of every bloody finance minstry from Abuja to Auckland. More recently, World Bank economist Charles Kenny recently confirmed the lack of correlation between improvements in life expectancy and growth, using both a large sample of countries over 25 years and a smaller sample covering a much longer period. I advise his still-serving colleagues to dust off his file and read his work, for the first time for them.

Well, ’nuff said. Let’s wait till the HDR 2011 starts streaming towards us, tweets and video and all.

One Response

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  1. The 2011 Human Development Report proposes a new definition for “sustainable human development”… but does the concept of sustainable development really need revisiting? The HDR’s definition (“reasonable efforts to avoid seriously compromising… future generations”) is disappointing in its lack of assertiveness compared with the well-established definition of systainable development we have had for the past 25 years. If we are to really achieve sustainability, we need to maintain a strong position.

    iddbirmingham

    November 14, 2011 at 18:28


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