THE Human Development Index (HDI) was devised by the late Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq (1934-1998) for the first Human Development Report (HDR) in 1990. See an explanation of his extraordinary contribution here http://hdr.undp.org/en/humandev/
It would seem obvious by now that growth and wealth helps – but does not necessarily mean human development or well being. Yet at the time, the HDI broke new ground, seeing human development not merely in terms of growth numbers but qualitative indices – aspects like health, education and so forth.
Since then the HDR has been recognised as balancing major reviews which focus entirely on growth (World Bank reports are a typical example; the Bank’s top 10 in a recent wide economic review, does not match the HDR’s top 10, lead author of the HDR Dr Jeni Klugman told me).
I met Dr Klugman, a former Rhodes Scholar and daughter of an Australian politician, in Bangkok recently. We had an interesting, hour-long chat about some of the phenomena related to Asia, which have emerged from the latest report - a 20th Anniversary Edition titled "The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development."
The report, released weeks ago, has not been launched in Asia - which is possibly why it appears to have been under-reported in the region.
It should get more attention. A summary of the results on Asia states "China, Nepal, Indonesia, Laos among top HDI performers since 1970" – but "multidimensional poverty, gender gaps, rising inequality identified as region’s big challenge."
"Multi-dimensional poverty" measures health, education and living standards at the household level. This measure picks up household level deprivations, the sort of everyday issues families struggle with – perhaps no water, perhaps no electricity, or perhaps a dirt floor, or a child out of school because it is expensive, or the death of a child because health care is inadequate, or too distant, or too expensive.
Some indices show that since 1990, Bangladesh and Cambodia have been the best performers in the region.
And if you go back to 1970, average life expectancy in East Asia and the Pacific has climbed since then, from 59 to 73 years in 2010.
In South Asia, life expectancy is now estimated at 65 years, compared to 49 in 1970 (when I was still in school in Kolkata, then Calcutta).
Nepal emerges as one of the world’s fastest movers since 1970. A child born today in Nepal can expect to live 25 years longer than a child born in 1970; more than four of every five children of school age in Nepal now attend primary school, compared to just one in five, 40 years ago.
I asked Dr Klugman how this was possible given the over 10-year civil war in Nepal, and political turmoil since then.
She said: "Free primary education for all children in Nepal was legislated in 1971, which is pretty early, and extended to secondary education in 2007. Gross enrolment soared."
Soaring literacy, an expansion in primary health care, decentralisation, communication participation and mobilisation of resources, enabled significant "catch up" in Nepal.
Of course, Nepal remains a poor country. Economic growth has not been strong, and tourism has only recently climbed back from the conflict years. So emigration remains strong – but so do remittances from Nepalese working abroad (many in India).
Other places have also done relatively well despite conflict, Dr Klugman said. Sri Lanka is one. Colombia is another example in which media headlines may concentrate on drug cartel wars, yet there have been significant achievements in human development. The resilience of communities battered often by strife and disaster, has often been noted by analysts.
Asia shines in some aspects in the latest HDR, but there are still areas of darkness. South Asia remains home to fully half of the world’s poor population, or 844 million people. Half the population of Cambodia is still in multi-dimensional poverty.
Assessing real human development is a complex business, involving politics, culture, corruption, environment and infrastructure usually unique to the region being assessed. And cynics may ask what the point is, of having clean running water, a nearby free school and free primary health care, when there are no jobs.
They would be right.
But tell that to a mother of small children and one may get a different answer.