Human development faces first decline in decades

Updated 22 May 2020


According to a UN report, drop in human development is expected to be much higher in developing countries. — AFP/File
According to a UN report, drop in human development is expected to be much higher in developing countries. — AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: Global human development — which can be measured as a combination of the world’s education, health and living standards — could decline this year for the first time since 1990, warns the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its report released on Thursday.

The ‘2020 Human Development Perspectives — Covid-19 and Human Development: Assessing the impact, envisioning the recovery’ notes that declines in fundamental areas of human development are being felt across most countries — rich and poor — in every region.

The drop in human development is expected to be much higher in developing countries which are less able to cope with the pandemic’s social and economic fallout than richer nations.

The Covid-19 pandemic is unleashing a human development crisis hitting hard all of human development’s constitutive elements: income, health and education. The economic shock can hit countries before the health shock, through income effects, and persist after the health crisis is over, it says.

The crisis is a stark reminder that humanity is unlikely to stay healthy in the sickening planet. But the crisis showed the potential of humans to act collectively to address a shared global challenge. The response was spotty, fragmented and incoherent, but virtually everywhere billions of people changed their behaviour to face a common threat.

The pandemic was superimposed on unresolved tensions between people and technology, between people and the planet, between the haves and the have-nots. These tensions were already shaping a new generation of inequalities — pertaining to enhanced capabilities, the new necessities of the twenty-first century.

In education, with schools closed and stark divides in access to online learning, UNDP estimates show that 86 per cent of children in primary education are now effectively out-of-school in countries with low human development — compared with just 20pc in countries with very high human development.

With school closures, UNDP estimates of the “effective out-of-school rate” — the percentage of primary school-age children, adjusted to reflect those without internet access — indicate that 60pc of children are not getting education, leading to global levels not seen since the 1980s, the UNDP report underlines.

“But with more equitable internet access — where countries close the gap with leaders in their development group something feasible — the current gaps in education could close,” it adds.

To assess the crisis, the UNDP report draws from original simulations that are based on an adjusted Human Development Index — with the education dimension modified to reflect the effects of school closures and mitigation measures — and that incorporate current projections of gross national income (GNI) per capita for 2020. The simulations suggest conditions today would correspond to a steep and unprecedented decline in human development.

The report says that countries, communities and groups already lagging in enhanced capabilities will be particularly affected, and leaving them further behind will have long-term impacts on human development. As far as the focus on people’s enhanced capabilities, is concerned, this could reconcile apparent tradeoffs between public health and economic activity but would also help build resilience for future shocks, according to the report.

Since the crisis has multiple interconnected dimensions of health, economic and several social aspects, decisions on the allocation of fiscal resources that can either further locking or break free from carbon intensive production and consumption, a systemic approach — rather than a sector-by-sector sequential approach — is essential, it says.

The report notes that in the absence of a vaccine or therapeutics, most of the measures to slow the spread of Covid-19 have been non-pharmaceutical interventions. The strategy of reducing contagion aims not just to protect the most vulnerable populations, but also to avoid excessive pressure on health systems. Even countries with high numbers of hospital beds per 1,000 people can see health services become overwhelmed during the peak of a pandemic.

The report says that one of the cruelest forms of disempowerment is gender-based violence — it magnifies inequalities and reflects traditional social norms that legitimise harassment and discrimination. More than a third of women – and more than two-thirds in some countries — have experienced physical or sexual violence inflicted by a non-partner, it adds.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2020