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Human Development: What does it really mean?

FRIDAY FILE: A review of the 2010 UN Human Development Report

By Kathambi Kinoti

What is well being? Is it individual or collective wealth, health, and/or political participation? Over the past 20years the United Nations has produced an annual Human Development Report that attempts to measure how far nations have gone in ensuring that their citizens are healthy, safe, politically engaged and equal to each other.

According to the 2010 report, the criteria that the UN currently uses to measure wellbeing are:

  • “Social progress- greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services.

  • Economics – the importance of economic growth as a means to reduce inequality and improve levels of human development.

  • Efficiency - in terms of resource use and availability. Human development is pro-growth and productivity as long as such growth directly benefits the poor, women and other marginalized groups.

  • Equity - in terms of economic growth and other human development parameters.

  • Participation and freedom - particularly empowerment, democratic governance, gender equality, civil and political rights, and cultural liberty, particularly for marginalized groups defined by urban-rural, sex, age, religion, ethnicity, physical/mental parameters, etc.

  • Sustainability - for future generations in ecological, economic and social terms.

  • Human security - security in daily life against such chronic threats as hunger and abrupt disruptions including joblessness, famine, conflict, etc.”

Not surprisingly, the country with the highest human development score is Scandinavian: Norway. The one with the lowest score is Zimbabwe. This year’s report also makes conclusions about patterns in human development based on the past 20years of observation. Some of the conclusions are that:

“•People in most, but not all, countries have made steady, long-term advances in health and education over recent decades.

• There has been no general convergence in income across countries, despite major growth surges in East Asia, the Pacific and India.

• The correlation between changes in income and changes in health and education over the last 40 years is weak. The most plausible explanation is that developing countries today face different opportunities and processes than those prevailing in the past.

• This does not mean that growth is unimportant— command over resources is still key to expanding many capabilities. It does mean that progress in health and education is attainable even when growth proves elusive.

• Global knowledge and technology are opening new options and paths and reducing

the costs of basic achievements, putting a greater premium on policies that take strategic advantage of opportunities.

• The paths to success are diverse, with enormous variation in outcomes for countries with similar initial conditions. Many countries have done well in the long term by emphasizing health and education; others have striven for rapid economic growth, though sometimes with a high cost to environmental sustainability.

• The policies and reforms compatible with progress vary widely across institutional settings and depend on structural and political constraints. Attempts at transplanting institutional and policy solutions across countries with different conditions often fail.”

Women’s situation

The Human Development Report does not provide a gendered breakdown of its findings.However it does introduce a new index that adjusts the human development index to reflect gender inequality. The Gender Inequality Index measures three dimensions: women’s empowerment, reproductive health and presence in the labour market. The indicators of these dimensions are maternal mortality, adolescent fertility, parliamentary representation, educational attainment and labour force participation.

The report shows that the most gender-equal country is the Netherlands, while the most gender-unequal country is Yemen. Seven out of the ten bottom countries on the UNDP scale are in Africa, but Burundi scores exceptionally well. The report reaffirms what women’s rights advocates have been saying for decades: countries with unequal distribution of human development also have high levels of gender inequality. It also reiterates that as in the case of Burundi and Rwanda, money is not the most important requirement for making lasting changes for women’s rights. Policies and political will go much further. Qatar, which has made impressive strides economically performs poorly when the Gender Inequality Index is applied to its human development record.

According to the report, reproductive health (or lack thereof) is the largest contributor to inequality. If data was available, perhaps it would show that reproductive roles assigned to women are actually the largest contributors to inequality. The authors of the report acknowledge that there is little information available about how women’s unpaid labour affects their well-being, and therefore they do not address the extent to which this impacts on local, national and international economies.

Lessons learnt

Tunisia gets a favourable mention as a country whose reforms for women’s rights have positively impacted its human development. At independence more than 50 years ago it raised the minimum age for marriage, introduced family planning,legalised abortion, allowed women to initiate divorce and gave them the right to vote and stand for election. This, the authors of the report say, has had a deep and lasting impact on the human development of the country.

Another thing that the country did right was to focus on its own priorities in an age when international financial institutions and other powers were prescribing (or imposing) economic reforms that were ultimately detrimental to national economies, such as structural adjustment programmes.

The 2010 Human Development Report also reviewed other dimensions of human development and found that:

“•Formal processes of democracy have proliferated at national levels, so that most people now live in democratic societies and have the chance to vote in local elections as well—though democracy does not always ensure accountability.

•International, intergroup and interpersonal inequalities remain huge in all dimensions of well-being, and income disparities are on the rise.

•There is increasing evidence that the world’s current production and consumption patterns are environmentally unsustainable.”

The report does not go far enough in analysing the situation of people who are not heterosexual or who do not have abilities that are not commonly seen as the norm. It does attempt to address the multiple dimensions of poverty and gender inequality by introducing new indices. Since inequalities are so much at the centre of under-development, these indices should have been more central to the report.*

* For an analysis of the value and shortcomings of gender equality indices please see Dr. Masum Momaya’s article “Numbers don’t lie; and they also don’t tell the whole story.”