New U.N. Report Reveals a Smarter, Healthier -- Yet More Unequal -- World

On the 20th anniversary of the world's most in-depth country ranking, the U.N. Human Development Index finds that global progress is largely on track. But those left behind are more numerous than ever.

If one were to look merely at bank slips, the world's countries and people are far less equal today than they were a mere two decades ago. But dig deeper, and the opposite is true: quality of life worldwide is moving toward a rather impressive average. In terms of health, education, and living conditions, the richest and poorest nations are looking more alike. In other words, it's now possible to be a poor country and boast healthy, educated citizens.

This is perhaps the most important contribution of the United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI) -- a broad measure of global prosperity that has become the gold standard for comparing how countries stack up. On the 20th anniversary of its creation, the new index has been dramatically revamped to provide greater nuance and detail about the state of the world's people. The good news is that the world is undeniably progressing. The bad news is that the index reveals that the poor -- those left furthest behind by that progress -- are more numerous than we thought.

When the HDI was first released in 1990, it transformed the way policymakers, journalists, and the public viewed the development of countries around the world. "Rather than focusing on only a few traditional indicators of economic progress," Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen, one of the original creators of the index, writes in the introduction, "'human development' accounting proposed a systematic examination of a wealth of information about how human beings in each society live and what substantive freedoms they enjoy." Relying on economic might alone, for example, one could assume that oil-producing Nigeria is among the wealthiest countries in Africa; its remarkably low human development index, however, puts it well below nominally smaller economies such as Ghana and Cameroon, both of which are dwarfed by Nigeria's gross output. 

Two decades later, that once groundbreaking methodology was due for an update. "The HDI was radical at the time in providing an alternative to [such gross economic measures as] GDP, but since then, a lot has happened," said Jeni Klugman, director of the index, in an interview. The initial HDI used country-wide averages for indicators like household income, for example, and thus failed to account for vast differences within countries. This was particularly apparent in natural-resource rich countries such as Angola or Equatorial Guinea for example, where the size of the country's economy -- divided by the number of its people -- seemed to show that things were going fairly well. But the index failed to account for the consolidation of that wealth in the hands of a small group of people -- leaving extensive poverty elsewhere.

Some of the specific indicators had also grown outdated. (The index is based on three primary areas: income, education, and health.) For example, literacy, the primary indicator for education, no longer varies significantly enough between countries to be a useful measure of educational attainment; development experts now consider years spent in school more relevant. Likewise, the index now measures a country's economy using Gross National Income (GNI) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The change is technically small but conceptually rather large: while GDP measures all wealth and income produced within a country's borders, GNI includes income earned by citizens working or living abroad. The advantage is most visible in measuring of remittances, which are counted in GNI but not GDP, and can have a huge impact on a country's development.

The broad results have not dramatically changed under the new system. The West -- and particularly Scandinavia -- does particularly well; Norway takes this year's top honors, while the United States ranks fourth. Familiar faces are also clustered toward the bottom of the index, with Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Niger filling out the bottom three spots.

More interesting is the middle of the index, where most of the movement has taken place. Over the last 20 years, the countries that have improved most include such well-known success stories as China (up 8 places since 2005), Indonesia (+2), and South Korea (+8). Yet while these countries have risen in large part due to improvements in income, other top performers can credit advances in education and health for their rise. Nepal, for example, has made large strides in primary education. Back in 1970, Oman would have scored similarly to the DRC on the index; the Gulf state had a mere three primary schools in the entire country. But over the following decades, Oman funneled its oil wealth into education infrastructure -- paying particular attention to the technical training that its economy demanded. Today, the average Omani lives three decades longer than the average Congolese.

The HDI's new inequality sub-index adds further nuance to the story. The utility of building the new sub-ranking was to highlight differences in quality of life within a population. In other words, the greater the proportion of people who do not meet basic benchmarks on income, health, and education, the more a country will suffer on the index. For example, the average Brazilian might attend school for seven years -- but many do not. Brazil falls from 73rd place to 88th once inequality is considered.

Countries in the West perform well on this basic standard -- most citizens complete secondary school, live above a certain age, and have a relatively high base level of income. But in much of the world, this is not yet the case. Eighty percent of all countries lost at least 10 percent of their HDI score when differences across socioeconomic classes were taken into account. Not surprisingly, countries that were lower on the index to begin with suffer an even greater loss: 45 percent in the case of Mozambique, for example. However, high- and middle-income countries also suffer from notable inequality: Argentina, which ranks 46th of 169 countries prior to accounting for inequality, drops to 67th place after taking stratification into account. Brazil, Colombia, Morocco, Peru, and South Africa all lose more than a quarter of their baseline score to inequality as well.

The index also makes useful distinctions between various types of inequality in different countries and regions. While Latin American countries suffer largely from income inequality, for example, South Asian countries are more afflicted by health and education inequality. Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from inequality on all three indicators: income, health, and education.

Gender inequality, now measured in a separate sub-index, shakes up the rankings in other surprising ways. The biggest losers here are Persian Gulf countries, where conservative social norms push down scores on female political representation and access to family planning. Saudi Arabia, which is one of the best overall performers on the index drops to 128th of 169 countries on the gender index. Notably, and despite U.S. and NATO efforts to empower women, Afghanistan loses an incredible 80 percent of its already low score once gender inequality is taken into account.

Finally, the index creates a new and more nuanced measure of poverty -- which the United Nations has dubbed "multi-dimensional poverty" -- meant to expand our understanding of neediness beyond the World Bank's widely used poverty benchmark of $1.25 in daily income. The new measure, Klugman explains, takes into account not only income but a whole host of "deprivations" that a household can experience. "The indicators are very austere things, like you had a baby die or you don't have access to running water."

When this expanded definition of poverty is used, the world has significantly more poor people than previously thought. "If we just look at the $1.25 per day measure, we're missing a whole lot of people who are suffering these quite serious deprivations in real life," Klugman notes. But the HDI's finding is not that the number of poor has increased in recent years; it's simply that the world underestimated their ranks before. Using the new measure, the absolute number of poor people increased from previous estimates in nearly every country -- with the notable exceptions of a few countries, including China and Tanzania, where there has been a larger push for basic services in underprivileged communities.

This new index promises to restart the conversation about what matters most in human development. At the country level, the results are often used to pinpoint deprived areas, such as education or healthcare, for intervention. In the international development community, the index can also help direct priorities. The new HDI data is a goldmine of data for eager policymakers; now, they can pinpoint not only broad topical areas for improvement but sub-sectors of the population.

The index can also shed light on the shortcomings of the world's wealthiest countries. The United States, for instance, rose in the ranking this year from 14th to fourth place. This is a false jump, however, caused by the improved methodology; looking back to 1980 using the new index measures, the United States has actually regressed, falling from first place in 1980 to fourth today. (Though the index was inaugurated in 1990, the United Nations has reverse engineered the rankings back several decades earlier.) The United States performs particularly poorly in gender equality, something that Klugman attributes largely to adolescent pregnancy rates (a measure of family planning services available to women) and poor representation in elected office.

Overall, the new Human Development Index is an affirmation of progress and a call to action for further improvement. "Twenty years after the appearance of the first Human Development Report, there is much to celebrate in what has been achieved," writes Sen in the introduction. "But we also have to be alive to ways of improving the assessment of old adversities and of recognizing -- and responding to -- new threats that endanger human well-being and freedom."



Why I Nominated Liu Xiaobo

On January 29, 2010, Kwame Anthony Appiah, the president of the global literary and human rights NGO PEN, sent this letter nominating Liu Xiaobo for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Republished here with permission.

Dear Members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee:

I am writing as the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and as President of PEN American Center to nominate Dr. Liu Xiaobo of China for the Nobel Peace Prize.

You are no doubt familiar with Liu Xiaobo’s immediate circumstances. On December 25, 2009, when the Chinese government believed that the world would not be paying attention, a Beijing court sentenced Liu to 11 years in prison and an additional two years’ deprivation of political rights for “inciting subversion of state power.” This so-called incitement, the verdict made clear, consisted of seven phrases—a total of 224 Chinese characters—that he had written over the last three years. I have attached a list of these phrases, which appeared in six essays and in Charter 08, a declaration modeled on Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77 that calls for political reform and greater human rights in China and has been signed, at considerable risk, by more than 10,000 Chinese citizens.

You are also surely familiar with Liu Xiaobo’s long history as one of the leading proponents of peaceful democratic reform in the People’s Republic of China. A poet and a literary critic, Liu served as a professor at Beijing Normal University and was a leading voice and an influential presence during the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989; indeed, his insistence on non-violence and democratic process are widely credited with preventing far more catastrophic bloodshed during the subsequent crackdown.

Along with my duties as a professor at Princeton University, I am also currently serving as President of PEN American Center, as I mentioned at the start; and in submitting this nomination of Liu Xiaobo I am particularly proud to note that Liu Xiaobo is not only a colleague of mine in the world of letters, but also, more particularly, a PEN colleague. Liu has been a leading figure in the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), our sister center, whose 250 members are doing courageous, on-the-ground advocacy work for freedom of expression in China despite constant pressure from Chinese authorities. Liu served as President of ICPC from 2003 to 2007, held seat a on its Board until late 2009, and is currently serving as Honorary President. Since ICPC was formed in 2001, it has emerged as a leading source of information about threats to writers and journalists and an important voice for freedom of expression in China, and it has come under increased pressure for its activities. Its meetings have been interrupted and canceled by authorities, its officers and members are regularly subject to intimidation and surveillance, and many have been detained and questioned about the center’s activities. Liu Xiaobo is one of six PEN members currently in prison in China.

In addition to Liu’s distinguished and principled leadership in the area of human and political rights and freedom of expression, there are many reasons why I believe Liu Xiaobo merits selection as the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Recipient.

Liu’s writings express the aspirations of a growing number of China’s citizens; the ideas he has articulated in his allegedly subversive writings, ideas that are commonplace in free societies around the world, are shared by a significant cross section of Chinese society. Charter 08, for example, is a testament to an expanding movement for peaceful political reform in China. This document, which Liu co-authored, is a remarkable attempt both to engage China's leadership and to speak to the Chinese public about where China is and needs to go. It is novel in its breadth and in its list of signers—not only dissidents and human rights lawyers, but also prominent political scientists, economists, writers, artists, grassroots activists, farmers, and even government officials. More than 10,000 Chinese citizens have endorsed the document despite the fact that almost all of the original 300 signers have since been detained or harassed. In doing so they, too, exhibited exceptional courage and conviction. One of them, for example, a teacher in Yunnan province, reported that police contacted her three times asking her to renounce the Charter and proclaim the signer was some other person with the same name. She refused. To stand up for Liu Xiaobo is to stand with a growing number of men and women like her in China; to stand with all those who advocate for peaceful change in the world’s most populous nation.

In fact, Liu Xiaobo is the kind of figure governments suppress at their peril. While he was a young university professor, Liu was a major protagonist in the final days of the Tiananmen Square protests, and, as I have already said, he is widely credited with preventing far greater bloodshed when government troops moved into the square. Liu admonished the students to make their own movement more democratic; he disarmed a group of workers who appeared with guns to protect the student demonstrators (there is stirring news footage of him seizing a rifle and smashing it at a Tiananmen rally shortly before the crackdown); and he helped persuade students to evacuate the square in the final hours. Deeply committed to non-violence and democracy, Liu has been able both to articulate and to channel the frustrations of the Chinese people for more than two decades. Stifling such a voice does nothing to address those frustrations, which one way or another will eventually find expression. China has, indeed, moved increasingly towards democracy and freedom in the last few decades.

The numbers of those imprisoned in China for exercising their right to free expression guaranteed to them by international human rights law was once in the thousands, if not tens of thousands: today we can identify only a few score such prisoners in the name of free expression. There are voices within the regime, we know, urging greater respect for free expression. China wants—and needs—to be heard in the community of nations. I—and all of my PEN colleagues—believe in a cosmopolitan conversation in which we hear from every nation. But the world must let China’s rulers know that we can only listen respectfully if they offer to their own citizens the fundamental freedoms we all claim from our governments. This is the right moment for the world to show those in China who do not understand that history is on freedom’s side that all the world’s friends of peace and democracy are watching. No signal of this would be more powerful than the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Over the years, the Nobel Committee has had a distinguished record of recognizing and honoring just such voices at just such critical moments. Liu Xiaobo stands in the company of Andrei Sakharov, Shirin Ebadi, and Dr. Martin Luther King, brave proponents of civil and political rights who have stood up to systematic repression in their own countries and practiced principled, non-violent resistance to bad laws and policies. In fact, the year before my countryman Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he wrote in his seminal letter from a Birmingham jail, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” Ten days after Liu Xiaobo was sentenced, he was able to release a statement through his lawyers. In it, he echoed Dr. King when he declared, “For an intellectual thirsty for freedom in a dictatorial country, prison is the very first threshold. Now I have stepped over the threshold, and freedom is near.”

It is likely that the Chinese government will want to argue, as indeed it already has, that their treatment of Liu Xiaobo is an internal matter, and that international awards and advocacy on his behalf amount to meddling in China’s internal affairs. But in fact, as PEN American Center noted in a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao following Liu’s conviction, the treatment he has endured is by definition an international matter, just as all violations of human rights are matters of legitimate concern to the whole world. By detaining Liu Xiaobo for more than a year, and then by convicting and sentencing him to 11 years in prison in clear violation of his most fundamental, internationally-recognized rights, the People’s Republic of China itself has guaranteed that his case is not and cannot be a purely internal affair. China’s citizens should be concerned that Liu Xiaobo was denied rights enshrined in the Chinese constitution; all of us have a right to express our concern that he was denied rights guaranteed in international treaties to which China is a signatory.

Human rights are the legitimate concern of all human beings. That principle was established firmly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Liu Xiaobo is one of some 45 writers currently imprisoned in China in violation of Article 19 of the UDHR and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and honoring him with the Nobel Peace Prize would be a powerful way to underscore the fact that the rights that are enshrined in international human rights law—values that China has acknowledged and endorsed—are the non-negotiable entitlements of every man and woman.

This is a message that the Chinese government needs to hear, more urgently than ever. If Liu Xiaobo’s case demonstrates anything, it is that Chinese authorities are now operating with a sense of impunity, convinced that they can stifle dissent and control the flow of information and ideas in their country without significant domestic or international repercussions. In the long run, of course, they will be proven wrong. But in the short term, there is every reason to worry about how many others will be silenced or suppressed if the world fails to make clear it stands with Liu Xiaobo. Just two weeks ago, I learned that Zhao Shiying, the Secretary General of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, had been detained, quite possibly because he has been a vocal critic of his government’s treatment of Liu Xiaobo. That he was released two weeks later gives me hope that the Chinese authorities are aware that the world is watching.

If China can jail Liu Xiaobo without repercussions, it isn’t just dissident voices inside China that are vulnerable. A feature of China's ascendancy on the world stage has been its implicit agreement with rights-abusing regimes in other nations that it will turn a blind eye to even the most blatant human rights violations in exchange for preferred commercial relations. The courageous men and women who are challenging tyranny in these countries are looking to the governments and leading non-governmental institutions in free countries for assurances that their fate, and the fate of their countries, depends on something more than the bottom line. To fail to challenge the Chinese government on Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment is to concede this argument internationally, at enormous peril to peaceful advocates of progress and change not just in China but all around the world. Awarding Liu Xiaobo the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, by contrast, would both honor Dr. Liu’s unique and indispensable contributions to the movement for greater civil, political, and human rights in China and serve as sustenance and inspiration to present and future rights activists in China and in every nation.

While I decided, after consultation with my colleagues at PEN, to write in support of Liu Xiaobo’s nomination some time ago, I am delighted to see that a number of leading intellectuals from other countries, including some eminent Nobel Laureates, have done so already.

I am attaching a few materials that I hope will prove helpful in evaluating this nomination: letters on Liu’s behalf from PEN American Center to President Obama and President Hu Jintao, and a letter in support of this nomination endorsed by some of my most eminent colleagues in the United States. I hope these are helpful. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to commend Liu Xiaobo to you, and I look forward, as always, to your decision.



Kwame Anthony Appiah