05 November 2010

Human Development Index - an improving yardstick of human welfare

That the GDP is a wretched measure of human welfare is now accepted by anyone seriously interested in human welfare. Consequently, other yardsticks have been proposed. Perhaps the most prestigious of these is the Human Development Index (HDI), or the more useful Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI), annually reported in the United Nations Human Development Report. The widespread media attention to the 2010 Report is an indication that alternatives to the GDP as a measure of human progress are being increasingly recognized.

Recognizing the weakness of the GDP in measuring human well-being, the UN Development Report incorporated three dimensions—health, education and income—to create the HDI. This year they recognized that averages in these dimensions could conceal wide disparities within populations, so they adjusted the results to account for inequalities, resulting in the IHDI. This is of critical importance because we know the health of a population depends more on equality of incomes than on the absolute level of incomes. This year, the Report also added measures for gender and poverty.

The world’s average HDI has increased 18 percent since 1990 reflecting considerable improvements in life expectancy, school enrollment, literacy and income with almost all countries benefitting. Of the 135 countries measured from 1970 to 2010, including over 90 percent of the world’s people, only three—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe—have a lower HDI today than 40 years ago. Poor countries are catching up to rich countries overall although incomes have diverged and the progress is uneven.

Health advances have been strong but some countries—such as those from the former Soviet Union and Sub-Saharan Africa—have had dramatic reversals. Progress in education has been widespread. Progress in income has varied considerably: in contrast to health and education, rich countries continue to grow faster than poor countries.

The report issues an important caution: "The main threat to maintaining progress in human development comes from the increasingly evident unsustainability of production and consumption patterns.... The close link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions needs to be severed for human development to become truly sustainable."

Unfortunately, the HDI doesn't include a measure of sustainability, not does it include a measure of progress in democracy and human rights although these issues are discussed in the Report. As the HDI is further refined it will become an increasingly useful yardstick to measure humanity's well-being, relatively and absolutely. It deserves the closest attention of the world's nations.

1 comment:

  1. As you know, Bill, the world turned unsustainable in the late 70s/early 80s when our population reached around 3.5 billion and began consuming our planet's annual production of renewable resources. In the 30-years since then we've been relying on historic reserves. This year Earth Overshoot Day arrives on August 21.

    It would be great if this unsustainability could be resolved through decarbonizing our economies and our societies but the problems are so much more broadly based. They're rooted in 18th century economics, 19th century industrialism and 20th century geopolitics.

    The global warming denialists rely entirely on keeping that issue isolated. However, when it is placed in the context of all the interconnected perils, the tangible and visible threats, such as desertification, deforestation, overpopulation, species extinction, resource depletion and exhaustion, air/land/water contamination, animal/human/pest and disease migration, their denialism pales into near irrelevance.

    These challenges, taken together, point to a common thread that we have to recognize if we're to solve any of them. And, as Jared Diamond points out in "Collapse," we can't solve any of them unless we solve all of them.

    The common thread shows us that we can't approach these threats individually. In that isolated context we approach them on national or regional interests that virtually ensure failure of effective action.

    What we have to recognize is that all of these problems, without exception, are founded on our refusal to live within the confines of our biosphere. All of them can be resolved by accepting, as the prime imperative, that solutions must be crafted to allow us to live in harmony with our ecosystem.

    Earth is not endangered, we are. Our wants must be subordinated to and harmonized with the earth's ability to sustainably meet them. Failing to accept that is like hopping into the back seat of Thelma & Louise's Thunderbird.