UN report: Millions ‘excluded from human development journey’

Despite huge strides in human development across the globe, many groups have been left behind, according to the UN’s 2016 Human Development Report. DW speaks to lead author Selim Jahan about the biggest challenges.

Slum Schule in Nairobi Kenia (DW/A. Stahl)

DW: The latest Human Development Report, titled “Human Development for Everyone,” was launched on Tuesday in Stockholm. It seems that there’s been little change in the Human Development Index (HDI) rankings over the past few years. Norway, Switzerland and Australia top the 2016 index, while countries in Africa, including Niger and the Central African Republic, rank lowest. Have there been any significant changes?

Selim Jahan: I wouldn’t say there have been remarkable changes, but there have been some shifts. Some countries, such as Romania, have moved up to the very high human development group. Some moved from medium to high human development, like Uzbekistan. And some countries like Nepal, Pakistan and Kenya have moved from low to medium human development.

Selim JahanSelim Jahan, lead author of the Human Development Report 2016

Predictably, countries like Syria, Libya and Yemen have dropped both in terms of rank and value because the conflicts there have led to declines in educational attainment and per capita income.

Are there any examples of improving development you can highlight from Africa?

Africa has been doing very well in terms of human development. During the first decade of 2000, Africa achieved an additional life expectancy of six years, which is the highest in the world. As a whole, African countries increased their HDI by 31 percent between 1990 and 2015. In Ethiopia they initiated a social protection program in 2005. Four years later, 7.5 million people were made food secure. In Senegal, between 2010 and 2012, the number of people having access to electricity increased from 17,000 to 90,000 – that’s a huge jump. Africa, in my view, is the next frontier of development.

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In the report, long-term development looks pretty good for all countries. But if we look at countries like Syria, which has just entered its seventh year of conflict, are you concerned about how long it could take them to catch up?

I don’t think it’s a question of how long it will take. It’s about what has caused the shocks. And those shocks can come from three sources. The first is conflict or extremism. If that happens over a longer period of time, as in Syria or Afghanistan, then it’s very difficult to keep the level of human development at the point they were at, say, five years ago. The second source is turmoil in the economic system. If a country is small, it is dependent on foreign aid, so shocks to the economic system can lead to the reversal of human development. The third source may come from climate change, although we don’t yet know the extent of the impact. Some of the trends are quite alarming. For example, if we don’t address climate change right now, by 2030 an additional 100 million people will be in extreme poverty. So that would be another source where human development gains may be lost.

Kiribati Wasserpegel (John Corcoran)Rising sea levels have threatened the livelihoods of people living in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati

This year there’s a particular emphasis in the report on those who are being excluded. Which groups are still being left behind?

The groups we’ve highlighted in this specific report are women and girls, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, people with a disability and LGBTI communities. And the reasons they’ve been left behind in the human development journey are many fold. It could have to do with social norms and discriminatory laws, or exclusions by society at large. For example, indigenous people represent 5 percent of the global population but account for 15 percent of global poverty. And if we look at laws, in 18 countries women need the permission of their husband to take up a job. Every year, 15 million girls under 18 get married – one child bride every two seconds – and that destroys their potential, shrinks their human development and stumps their capabilities. So there are discriminatory laws which basically act as barriers to human development.

Indien KinderhochzeitYoung children are still married off in some Indian villages as part of a centuries-old custom, despite laws against it

It’s not just on an individual level though, it’s a loss for the whole society isn’t it?

Absolutely because whenever there are losses for groups, it’s a loss for the whole society. Take the example of women and girls, you cannot have sustained or sustainable human development if that development bypasses half of humanity. It’s as simple as that.

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There are also different ideas about what human development encompasses. How important is the quality versus quantity of development?

For so long we’ve been concerned about the quantity of human development – how many children are going to school, whether they are enrolled, whether people are having a long and healthy life, and so on. But now the time has also come to ask: “Ok, children are attending school, they are enrolled, but what are they learning?”

One third of children at the primary level have difficulties with maths and reading, even though they have finished five years of primary education. So the question of quality of education is a concern in every society.

We also made a very strong point in the report that for too long we have been hostages to the tyranny of the average and it is important that we go beyond the average and instead use a desegregated framework. For example, the multidimensional poverty index indicates that 1.5 billion people in the world are in multidimensional poverty. But when we desegregate it by rural-urban divide, we see that out of those 1.5 billion people, only 11 percent are in urban areas, but 29 percent are in rural areas. So the rural population in multidimensional poverty is three times bigger than the urban population. That kind of desegregation can unmask the average.

Hannover Flüchtlinge in Sprachlernklasse (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Steffen)One third of children at primary school have trouble reading

What recommendations does the report give to policymakers?

Basically it tells policy makers to focus on those groups of people who are disadvantaged. That means having universal policies in terms of inclusive growth, employment-led growth strategy and financial inclusion. We’re also making the policy recommendation that human development will not be sustained if it is not resilient. And resilience will come when we deal with issues like climate change, HIV/AIDS or trying to initiate the development process in post-conflict situations.

People have to be empowered. Their rights have to be protected. There has to be accountability and transparency by the government and other development actors. Without the empowerment of people, human development for everyone will not be reached.

Selim Jahan is the Director of the UNDP’s Human Development Report Office in New York. He is the author of 10 books and more than 150 articles in various national and international academic journals. His areas of expertise include human development, poverty and vulnerability, macroeconomic policies, inequality, inclusive growth and the post-2015 development agenda.

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