Human progress since 1990

The UN has produced its Human Development Report since 1990, and it’s an interesting way to track human progress over the years. For all the bad news stories that clog the news bulletins, it is indisputable that we’ve come a long way in that quarter century.

Millions of people have seen their incomes rise and their prospects widen. Millions have benefited from access to healthcare and education.

The graph below is from the latest edition, and it’s a nice summary of what’s happened. The left hand side shows 141 countries in 1990, grouped according to their level of development. At the top we have very highly developed countries – that’s those with life expectancy of around 80 years, an expected 16 years of education, and GDP per capita of around $40,000. Countries at the bottom have a life expectancy closer to 60, half as many years in school and GDP per capita under $3,000.

Between 1990 and today, here’s how countries have moved:


The obvious good news is a large number of countries have developed. Nobody’s gone backwards. From 12 highly developed countries in 1990, there are now 47. Some countries have even leaped a category entirely. Croatia, Argentina and Saudi Arabia all moved from ‘medium’ to ‘very high’. And that prominent little line splitting away from the red low human development category and making its way into the blue? That’s China.

There’s one other thing that stands out to me from this graph though: the higher up the scale you are, the easier it is to go higher still. Notice how the proportion of countries rising a category decreases as you read down the graph. Almost all the ‘high’ countries became ‘very high’ development. The majority of the medium development countries went up a category. But down at the bottom, most of the poorest countries stayed poor.

So it’s a matter of perspective. Yes, you can say that the globalisation project has worked, but it hasn’t worked for everybody in the same way. It doesn’t work nearly so well for those who need it most. You need a lot of global growth for the rich to deliver a sliver of growth to the poor. That’s not an argument for anti-globalisation, but it is a reminder that we don’t have a level playing field and development has to be pro-poor.

The Human Development Index doesn’t have a sustainability component, which unfortunately hides some of the environmental consequences of this progress (see the effect on biodiversity, for example.) With climate change in mind, the graph above takes on another level of significance. The higher up the scale, the bigger your contribution to global emissions is likely to be, while the lower you find yourself, the more vulnerable you’re going to be to a changing climate.

That means, unfortunately, that we cannot take ongoing progress for granted. We can’t assume that if we carry on with business as usual, we’ll eventually lift everybody out of poverty. A destabilised climate could claw back the fragile development gains in the poorest counties. If we fail to stop dangerous climate change, we may lock the poorest parts of the world out of development altogether.


  1. It is hardly surprising that very poor countries develop slowly as they have less human and physical capital to build on. Once you reach a certain level it can snowball. Development is like a a hockey stick.

    The big lesson is that that snowballing can occur quicker now than before. Thanks to globalization and free trade.

    If you try to slant development in a ‘pro-poor’ way given the ideas of the people who propose that there is a strong chance you would slow global growth that undermines the growth of the poor countries. After all, who do they sell to but richer countries.

    1. Yes, no surprises there, and hopefully it will snowball from here if climate change doesn’t keep undoing the good work.

      I know we disagree on this, but I believe free trade is a process rather than an open/closed situation. There is room for flexibility in how countries open up to global markets, and there should be a bias towards poorer countries rather than attempts to treat everyone equally in trade negotiations.

      1. The people who stiffer from high tariffs in poor countries are the poor in those countries who pay more for their staples. Tariffs are never pro poor. But I do think the developed world should cut their tariffs on poor er countries regardless if they cut theirs.

        1. If you look at the way the US and EU dump their surplus subsidised grain on poorer countries, thereby depressing prices to the point that agricultural capacity is destroyed, you might want to reconsider that.

          Same thing if you were to walk through an African market and browse the secondhand clothes and shoes from the West that arrive by the container-load. There’s no hope of creating local jobs in textiles with that going on. You’ll end up exporting your cotton to middle income countries, they’ll make the clothes and the profits from selling them to the West, then you get them back at the end in secondhand clothes.

          Or, you could restrict secondhand clothing imports and support local manufacturers, adding value in-country. Support is gradually reduced as jobs are created, local markets are served and exports begin to rise. You work towards the goal of free markets, ensuring that when you open to global trade you can actually be a player and not a sidelined net importer.

          That’s not anti free trade. Like I say, I just see it as a process, and take a more practical and flexible approach. The end goal is the same.

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