UN: 'Significant progress' in human development

By David Loyn
BBC International Development Correspondent

Image caption, Bangladesh has made significant progress in recent decades, despite no economic boom, says the UN

Launched 20 years ago with the simple line that "people are the real wealth of a nation", the United Nations' Human Development Report has become the most trusted annual indicator of progress in developing nations.

The 20th anniversary report charts progress going back 20 years before that first publication - so it is an ambitious attempt to chart development achievements - or not - going back 40 years.

The UN Development Programme's report concludes that since 1970 there has been significant progress - often underestimated until now - and that the fastest progress has been in some of the poorest countries. It also concludes that aid works.

Schools and hospitals

There has been most progress in the areas of health and education, sectors which have received most focus in development assistance.

After all this number-crunching, the UNDP believe that there is no magic bullet, one-size-fits-all route out of poverty - "no single model or uniform prescription for success".

Progress has been achieved in dictatorships and democracies, on islands and in landlocked countries, and in places with different colonial histories.

And this anniversary report is an affirmation of the starting point of the economists who began searching, a generation ago, for a better way of measuring the quality of human life.

The report concludes that progress does not depend on economic growth alone, but also on life expectancy, better access to health care, education, transport and so on.

There is no direct link between economic growth and improvement in human development: some countries have grown wealthier without necessarily improving the fortunes of those at the bottom.

The starkest example of this is the progress achieved for the poorest in Bangladesh, relative to India, although Bangladesh has not had economic growth at anything like the same level as its giant South Asian neighbour.

In Africa only three countries have gone backwards since 1970 - the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Zambia - the first two because of conflict and bad government, and the last principally because of HIV/Aids.

Dozens of other countries across Africa have made far more progress particularly in health and education than had been assumed, and that is where the aid has gone.

Markets 'not the answer'

The report warns of worsening inequality both within and across countries. There have been periods when progress has gone backwards - particularly in countries of the former Soviet Union and Southern Africa.

And the market has not stepped in where institutions have failed: "Markets are very bad at ensuring the provision of public goods, such as security, stability, health and education", the report reads.

Future challenges to progress include climate change and the threat of further recession.

The report found that the global economic turndown pushed 64 million more people below earnings of $1.25 a day, the measure of absolute poverty.

In an introduction to the report, the Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen, whose work inspired the Human Development Index, writes "the new challenges we face have intensified - for example, those surrounding the conservation of our environment and the sustainability of our well-being and substantive freedoms.

"The human development approach is flexible enough to take note of the future prospects of human lives on the planet".

At the other end of the scale Norway remains at the top of the list, with the highest human development.

The US is fourth, just ahead of Ireland, while the UK has slipped to 26th place - behind every other western European nation, and Hong Kong.

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