The UNDP Human Development Report (HDR) for 2011 focuses on the intertwined issues of sustainability and equity.  While most countries have achieved substantial development gains since 1970, the 2011 HDR draws attention to evidence that raises questions about the sustainability and distribution of these benefits.

Human Development Index: Encouraging Progress

Most countries have made great strides in living standards over the past 30 to 40 years.  The UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) increased, on average, by 41 percent overall and 60 percent in low HDI countries since 1970.

The HDI country ranking is divided into four quartiles.  The first quartile, or top 47 countries with the highest HDIs, is labeled “very high human development.”  The remaining three quartiles of country groupings are “high human development” countries, “medium human development” countries and “low human development” countries.

From 1980 to 2011, average HDI scores increased by 16.1 percent, 20.7 percent, 50.0 percent and 44.3 percent for very high, high, medium and low human development countries, respectively.  The table below presents HDI data from the 2011 HDR for a select group of countries from each development category.

Green Revolution

The Green Revolution in agricultural productivity is one of a number of important factors behind the dramatic rise in living standards.  With only a 10 percent increase in cultivated land, agricultural output doubled over the past 50 years.

In Asia, the Green Revolution “doubled rice and wheat yields between the 1960s and 1990s through the introduction of high-yield plant varieties, better irrigation and the use of fertilizers and pesticides.”  Though, the HDR points out that some of these methods do not make for sustainable agriculture.

Equity and Sustainability: The Other Side of the Story

Yet, not far beneath the surface, a host of factors raise concerns about the distribution of HDI gains and the prospects for the next 50 years of global development.

  • 1.5 billion people worldwide, or more than 20 percent of the global population, still live in energy poverty without access to electricity.  Hundreds of millions more struggle with limited, unreliable access.
  • Half the world’s people face serious health and safety risks from continuing to rely on traditional biomass (e.g., coal, wood, peat) for heating and cooking.
  • In low HDI countries, 65 percent of people lack access to improved sanitation and 38 percent lack access to improved water.
  • The average number of natural disasters more than doubled from 132 a year over 1980-1985 to 357 over 2005-2009.
  • Global carbon dioxide emissions by country increased by 112 percent on average since 1970.
  • World food prices are expected to rise 30-50 percent in real terms and become more volatile in the coming decades due to adverse environmental factors.

Water Issues

Water access and supply are two telling indicators of current and future states of development.  Today, more than 6 people in 10 still lack ready access to safe, improved water.  By 2025, water scarcity is expected to impact the lives of more than 1.8 billion people.

Beyond its intrinsic value, water is an essential input for food production.  Most of the world’s poor rely on farming tiny-to-small plots of land to survive.  Demand for water for food production is projected to double by 2050.  This sharp increase is made all-the-more significant by the fact that agriculture accounts for 70-85 percent of global water usage.

Fish Stocks and Fishing Livelihoods

The global annual fish catch of 145 million tons exceeds the maximum sustainable annual yield of piscine food sources, estimated at 80-100 million tons, by anywhere from 40 percent to more than 80 percent.  With 85 percent of people who work in the global fishing industry, Asia will bear the brunt of a downturn in fish yields due to over-fishing, excessive global fish consumption, climate change or other risk factors.

Equity Issues

  • Today, a resident of a very high HDI country accounts for about 30 times the carbon dioxide emissions of the average person living in a low HDI country.  However, very high HDI countries can have very different environmental impacts.  Norway’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions of 10 tons is less than one-third that of the 35 tons per capita generated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
  • Between 1850 and 2005, very high HDI countries, while accounting for only about one-sixth of the world’s population, contributed nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of global carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Indoor air pollution, largely from cooking and heating with coal or other biofuels due to a lack of electricity, currently kills 11 times more people living in low HDI countries than people elsewhere.  “In low HDI countries, 94 percent of the multidimensionally poor rely on [bio]fuels, producing smoke associated with acute respiratory infections, lung cancer, reduced lung function, carbon monoxide poisoning and immune system impairment.”  In Peru, more than 80 percent of rural households depend on fuel wood for cooking due to low rural electrification rates.

Deforestation: Impact of Global Demand and Supply Linkages

Deforestation poses a serious threat to the livelihoods of local communities and the prospects for sustainable development.  Residents of low HDI countries, especially the poor and rural dwellers, face the greatest risk from reductions in forest cover.  Deforestation destroys natural ecosystem services and causes biodiversity losses that tear away at agricultural productivity while heightening the risk and impact of chronic health problems and the growing number of natural disasters.

Rates of deforestation have to be evaluated within the context of the global chain of supply and demand.  According to the 2011 HDR, “simulations suggest that the European Union transfers 75 of very 100 cubic meters of reduced timber harvest to developing countries, mainly the tropics,” while Australia and New Zealand transfer 70 cubic meters and the U.S. 46 cubic meters.  While Indonesia deforested at a rate of nearly 20 percent annually between 1990 and 2008, the Philippines, with similar per capita income, reforested 15 percent over the same period.

What is Sustainable Development?

Sustainable development has three pillars: economic, social and environmental.  This triumvirate has also become known as the “triple bottom line” in the modern parlance of socially responsible business.

Intragenerational equity is a key element of the social pillar of sustainable development.  According to the 2011 HDR, development economists Amartya Sen and Sudhir Anand made the case for linking sustainability and equity more than a decade ago by arguing, “It would be a gross violation of the universalist principle if we were to be obsessed about intergenerational equity without at the same seizing the problem of intragenerational equity.”  In other words, we should care not only about how we stack up to one another today but also about how what we have today measures up to what future generations will have tomorrow.

Pursuing Sustainable Development

Persuading a critical mass to buy into prioritizing sustainability presents an imposing challenge of psychological and behavioral wills.  Like-minded proponents of sustainability need to take the lead by building influential coalitions of the enlightened and demonstrating the business case for sustainable development.  Fortunately, a growing cadre of influential organizations and innovative projects are investing in charting the course for a more sustainable future.  They would do well to direct a healthy share of their efforts to poor and under-served populations who would need it the most.

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