Photo © Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development

Why Human Development is Flatlining

Each year, the United Nations Development Program produces the Human Development Report. This is a compilation of country-level data around education, health, and economic security that aspires to give a more holistic understanding of a country’s development beyond economic indicators alone.

UNDP has been putting this Human Development Report together for decades, and while some countries would sometimes register advances or declines in the so-called Human Development Index, the global trend was always one of unrelenting progress.

Until COVID.

The COVID years resulted in global declines along the human development indicators for reasons explained by my guest today, Pedro Conceicao, Director of the Human Development Report Office at the United Nations Development Program. As Pedro Conceicao explains, the most recent report shows that, globally, the Human Development Index is registering progress, but that progress is not as sharp as it was prior to COVID. The COVID years have introduced a slowing in the pace of human development that now appears to be structural.

We discuss this and much more in our conversation which is freely available across all podcast listening platforms. An excerpt of our conversation is below. The full transcript is immediately available to paying subscribers.

Pedro Conceição: We’ve started calculating human development index in 1990. And if you look at the evolution of the human development index on average at the global level since 1990 up to 2019, you have basically a straight line of improvement. So, on average, human development, globally, has been expanding steadily. This line hasn’t been present in every country. So, in some countries, there are economic recessions, sometimes disasters, conflict — it varies and it’s a bit more volatile from country to country. But overall, until 2019 at least, there was a story of steady progress in the global human development index and therefore in global human development.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, basically, the graph had always been going from 1990 up until 2019 up into the right, driven broadly by social progress taken place over the last 30 years or so?

Pedro Conceição: Social and economic progress. So, there’s been actually economies in low and middle income countries have been growing more rapidly on average than the economies in high income countries. So, it’s actually not only a story of steady progress, but the story in which countries with low levels of income have been getting closer to those at higher levels of income. So, it’s a story both of steady progress and the story of narrowing gaps between rich and poor countries.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And I have to imagine that just in terms of sheer numbers, like a lot of the progress is driven by China and India.

Pedro Conceição: Yes, because of the size of their populations, but when we look at the performance of other economies with smaller levels of population, or other countries, you see essentially the same story with some volatility obviously. As I alluded to earlier, if you have conflict or if you have an economic recession disaster, so those usually are reflected in shocks in this evolution of human development index.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And so I noted that you said this ever-increasing global progress stopped in 2019. You just mentioned a shock. I have to imagine that the halted progress is owing to COVID-19.

Pedro Conceição: So in 2020 and 2021, for the first time ever there was a decline in the global human development index. Not only that, but we’ve had declines in the human development index in almost 90% of the world’s countries. So this was something that is unprecedented since we have started computing the human development index. So, it’s s virtually universal crisis in human development that has taken place over two years because it was COVID-19 but compounded also by other shocks, associated also with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, it was something that affected the three components of the human development index.

It affected the economy with all the lockdowns and the measures that were put in place to constraint the spread of the virus. It affected life expectancy at birth with declines in life expectancy at birth in most countries in the world. And it affected education also because many schools, as your listeners may remember, were closed for months and in some cases over a year in many parts of the world. And it was also something that happened across all countries almost at the same time. So, it was really something unprecedented that affected all the dimensions of human development, affected almost all countries in the world, and did so almost instantaneously or almost simultaneously at the same time.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So after these COVID era years of decline, does this new report and the data used to feed into it suggest that we, as a collective humanity, are bouncing back?

Pedro Conceição: We are. If we look at the global average, so that’s the good news in our latest human development report is that the global average is recovering. So, the human development index is increasing again. But there are two very concerning aspects in this bouncing back in the global human development index. The first is that the line of improvement has shifted downward. In other words, if you were to project forward the line of improvement in the global human development index from 2019 onwards, the line of actually progress that we are witnessing stays below that projected line. So, there is a gap here between what we could potentially have achieved had we not seen the decline in 2020 and 2021 and the path that we are on at the moment.

Mark Leon Goldberg: It’s as if we’re bouncing back slower.

Pedro Conceição: It’s not so much slower, but it’s that there is a gap between what we could be achieving and what we’re actually achieving. So, there is like a wedge between the potential and the actual line. So, they actually run in parallel, but there is a gap that represents a loss in human opportunity, a loss in human development. And if this gap doesn’t narrow, in other words, if the line of progress in human development doesn’t accelerate, these losses may become long-term and even potentially permanent. I think this is very important because sometimes we think that, well, just because we are now bouncing back, it’s like we are going back to normal. But what the data suggests is that actually we may be confronting potentially permanent losses in human development. So, this is sometimes also described as a scaring effect, something that leaves scars. So, it’s not something that we can really bounce back from fully unless, again, we are able to revert the line of progress towards something that accelerates much more than has been the trend up to 2019.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Why is this scarring effect, as you say, seemingly now like a structural element of our post-COVID era? Why can’t we just bounce back to where we were?

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