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Human development in Asia
Wednesday, 11 April 2012 05:31

The objective of development should be to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives.  In other words, it's all about "human development".

But what exactly is human development?  And how well are countries doing in the quest to improve the well-being of their citizens?

In the words of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP): "Human development is the expansion of people's freedoms to live long, healthy and creative lives; to advance other goals they have reason to value; and to engage actively in shaping development equitably and sustainably on a shared planet.  People are both the beneficiaries and the drivers of human development, as individuals and in groups."

Quite a mouthful, I know.  In essence, it means that human development is all about expanding people's freedoms, capabilities and choices.

Back in 1990, the UNDP launched its "human development index (HDI)".  It is a summary composite index that measures a country's average achievements in three basic aspects of human development, namely, health, knowledge, and income.  Health is measured by life expectancy, knowledge by mean years of schooling, and income by gross national income in purchasing power parity terms.  The HDI does not however attempt to measure aspects such as political participation, human rights, gender equality or environmental sustainability.  Thus, it only offers a broad proxy of human development, which is a much broader concept than the HDI.

But the HDI does give us a better sense of human development than poverty reduction figures which are about lifting people up from the bottom of the ladder.  Human development gives us a sense of what developing countries should aspire to.

Countries are ranked with the top quarter being classified as having "very high human development", the second quarter as "high human development", the third quarter as "medium human development", and the bottom quarter as "low human development".  Globally, the top 4 countries are: Norway, Australia, Netherlands, and United States.  New Zealand comes in fifth, ahead of a number of countries with higher gross national income, thanks to its high life expectancy and good education performance.

The HDI is very important, because there was a time when economists were just concerned with economic growth.  But there have been too many cases of economic growth without development -- where economic production of goods and services increased dramatically, but where citizens have benefited little in terms of well-being and access to education or health, or where such growth has had very adverse effects on the environment, or where citizens were denied the right of political participation.

In inter-country comparisons, income variations tend to explain not much more than half the variation in life expectancy, or in infant and child mortality.  And they explain an even smaller part of the differences in adult educational attainment.  In other words, the manner in which countries spend their wealth, as much as the wealth itself, is decisive for human development.

There have always been some cases where a country's human development has been much more successful than its economic growth -- Cuba is a curious case with a quite low income, but much higher life expectancy and education levels, with the result that it is estimated to have a high level of human development, coming at 51st in the world.

But there just not the curious case of Cuba.  In Asia, Japan is ranked as having the region's highest level of human development, even though its income is lower than Hong Kong, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam, thanks to Japan's better scores on education and to a lesser extent life expectancy.

So in this Asian Century, how do our Asian friends stack up in the human development race?

Developing East Asia and the Pacific predictably has a lower level of human development than North America and Europe, but also Latin America and the Caribbean.  South Asia is well below East Asia and also the Arab States, but also clearly ahead of Sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past three decades, both developing East Asia and the Pacific, and South Asia are the regions with the fastest rates of improvement, about a 1.4% average annual rate of increase.

On a country basis, the results are:

-- Five Asian countries make it into the "very high human development" group, namely, Japan (12th), Hong Kong (13th), Korea (15th) Singapore (26th) and Brunei Darussalam (33rd).

-- Only Malaysia at 61st makes it into the "high human development" group.

-- Ten Asian countries are in the "medium human development" group.  They are Sri Lanka (97th), China (101st), Thailand (103rd), Mongolia (110th), Philippines (112nd), Indonesia (124th), Viet Nam (128th), India (134th), Lao (138th) and Cambodia (139th).

-- Four Asian countries are classified as having "low human development", that is, Pakistan (145th), Bangladesh (146th), Timor-Leste (147th) and Myanmar (149th).

The message is clear and simple.  Most Asian countries have a long way to go before they achieve their human development potential for their citizens.  While the very high human development group of countries has an average HDI score of 0.889, that of developing East Asia and the Pacific is 0.671, and that of South Asia is 0.548.

But these Asian countries enjoy the benefit of backwardness, which means that with good policies they can continue a rapid economic catchup process.  Over past three decades they have already come a long way.  In 1980, developing East Asia and the Pacific had a score of only 0.428, while South Asia's score was 0.356.


Human Development Reports.  UNDP.


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