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Human development

Progress in human development over the past 30 years

Bar charts over show that progress in human development has been made on several fronts. Poverty data refer to the share of the population living on less than US$1 a day

Sources: FAO 2000, UNDP 2001, UNESCO 2000

There have been some impressive gains in human development, particularly in the developing world: incomes and income poverty have improved, people are living longer, are healthier, more literate and better educated than ever before. Average annual incomes in developing countries have mostly risen: in real terms (constant US$1995) they rose during 1972- 99 by 13 per cent in Africa, by 72 per cent in Asia and the Pacific and by 35 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean; in West Asia they fell by 6 per cent (compiled from World Bank 2001). Nevertheless, the challenges remain daunting in the 21st century, with high levels of deprivation persisting across the world.Approximately 1.2 billion people, or one-fifth of the world's population, still live in extreme poverty on less than US$1 per day, and 2.8 billion people, or almost half the world's population, on less than US$2 a day (UNDP 2001). Three-quarters of those in extreme poverty live in rural areas (IFAD 2001), and the majority are women. Poverty is not limited to developing countries: more than 130 million people in the developed countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are considered income-poor (UNDP 2001).

Ill health is related to environmental factors (WHO 1997, Murray and Lopez 1996) and poverty. Medical innovation, progress in basic health care and enabling social policies have resulted in dramatic increases in life expectancy and declines in infant mortality (UN 2000). Overall, a child born today can expect to live eight years longer than one born 30 years ago (UNDP 2001). However, poverty rates in both urban and rural areas, as well as major infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria are a threat to health successes over the past few decades.

Tremendous progress has also been made in terms of education in the past 30 years, and adult literacyrates have increased from an estimated 63 per cent in 1970 to 79 per cent in 1998 (UNESCO 2000). Nevertheless, in 2000 there were still 854 million illiterate adults, of whom 543 million (63.6 per cent) were women, and 325 million children not attending school of whom 56 per cent were girls (UNDP 2001). Improved education (especially among women) together with capacity building is considered to have been critical in slowing down world population growth from an annual peak of 2.1 per cent in the early 1970s to 1.3 per cent in 2000 (UN 1997, UNFPA 2001).

The Human Development Index (HDI)
The HDI combines indicators of the basic dimensions of human development (longevity, knowledge and a decent standard of living) to measure a country's overall achievements, categorized as high, medium or low human development. Between 1975 and 1999, there was overall progress in human development (see table), demonstrating the potential for poverty eradication and progressive human development in the coming decades. Nevertheless, 8 countries in economic transition and 12 in sub-Saharan Africa have suffered setbacks in the same period (see 'Africa' and 'Europe' in this section).
Changing structure of human development (millions of people)
High human development
Medium human development
1 600
3 500
Low human development
1 100

Note: numbers of people refer only to countries for which 1975 and 1999 data are available and therefore do not equal total population

Source: UNDP 2001