The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has announced that, for the first time since it was created more than 30 years ago, the Human Development Index – a measure of the life expectancies, levels of education and living standards of countries – declined for two years in a row, in 2020 and 2021.
“That means we die earlier, we are less educated and our incomes are falling,” UNDP chief Achim Steiner told AFP.
“Just below three parameters, we can get a sense of why so many people are starting to feel desperate, frustrated, worried about the future,” he said.
The Human Development Index has been rising steadily for decades, but it started to fall in 2020 and continued its fall in 2021, erasing the gains of the previous five years.
Titled “Uncertain Times, Unstable Lives”, the report points to the Covid-19 pandemic as one of the main drivers of the global reversal, but also says that a composite number of crises – political, financial and climate-related – have not allowed time for populations recover.
“We’ve had disasters before. We’ve had conflicts before. But the confluence of what we’re facing now is a major setback for human development,” Steiner said.
The setback is truly global, with an impact on more than 90% of countries around the world, according to the study.
Switzerland, Norway and Iceland retain their places at the top of the list, while South Sudan, Chad and Niger are at the bottom.
And while some countries began to recover from the pandemic, many others in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean had not yet recovered before a new crisis: the war in Ukraine.
While the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on food and energy security have yet to be calculated in this year’s index, “without a doubt, the outlook for 2022 is bleak,” Steiner said.
A major contributor to the recent decline in the Human Development Index is a global drop in life expectancy, from 73 years in 2019 to 71.4 years in 2021.
The report’s lead author, Pedro Conceição, described the drop as an “unprecedented shock”, noting that some countries – including the United States – have experienced declines of two years or more.
The report also describes how transformative forces such as climate change, globalization and political polarization present humanity with a complex level of uncertainty “unseen in human history”, leading to growing feelings of insecurity.
“People lost trust in each other,” Steiner said.
“No matter in the institutions, our neighbor now sometimes becomes the biggest threat, whether literally speaking in the community, or globally by the nations, which is paralyzing us”
“We can’t continue with the playbook of the last century,” Steiner argued, preferring a focus on economic transformation rather than reliance on growth as a remedy.
“Frankly, the transformations we need now force us to introduce the metrics of the future: low carbon, less inequality, greater sustainability.”
The report also carries a positive note, saying that improvements can be made by focusing on three main areas: investments in renewable energy and preparedness for future pandemics, insurance to absorb shocks and innovations to strengthen capacity to deal with future crises.
Steiner also called for a reversal of the recent downward trend in development assistance to the most vulnerable countries.
Continuing down that path would be a serious mistake, Steiner said, and “underestimates the impact this has on our ability to work together as nations.”