“Eradication of poverty is not just about getting to zero,” explains United Nations Development Program administrator Helen Clark. “It’s also about staying there.” That’s the main thrust of the 2014 Human Development Report (HDR) titled “Sustaining Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience.”
“This is not about rocket science,” Clark adds. “Where people address vulnerabilities, development comes very, very nicely. Where they haven’t addressed development deficits, as in Syria, it all comes spectacularly unstuck.”
The 2014 HDR breaks away from conventional economic yardsticks which “set toothpaste prices,” the late Mahbub ul Haq of the World Bank once noted. Focus on life spans, hunger, schools, and human aspirations, 1998 Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen responded. “We need a measure that’s not as blind to social aspects as gross national product is.”
Sen and Haq crafted human development indices (HDIs), which track performance, by a country, in longevity, knowledge and decent standard of living. They were first deployed in the 1990 HDR. “People are the real wealth of a nation,” the lead sentence read.
In 1995, the HDR focused on gender, followed by water scarcity in 2006. The 2011 report analyzed “Sustainability and Equity.”
In Asia today, the HDR ranks Singapore as No. 9, followed by South Korea at No. 15. Japan trails at No. 17 due to its lower income and schooling measures. Worldwide, Norway leads Australia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United States.
In today’s ranking of 187 countries, the Philippines is in Slot 117, sandwiched between Uzbekistan (116) and South Africa (118). See the Asean context: Indonesia is in Slot 108, Thailand 89, and Malaysia 62.
Countries in Asia and the Pacific “do not have to become rich to provide adequate social protection or basic social services.” Nordic countries, as well as South Korea and Costa Rica, provided “universal basic social services when their per capita GDP was lower than that of
India or Pakistan today.”
Governments must commit to the universal provision of basic services and social protection to build resilience, especially for the poor and other vulnerable groups. The HDR stresses that a lack of decent, well-paid jobs—especially for the youth—is a major challenge, including Asia and the Pacific. Youth joblessness is at 22 percent in Indonesia, 17 percent in Sri Lanka, 16 percent in the Philippines and Samoa, and 14 percent in Timor-Leste.
Some societies recover more quickly than others. Why?
They fast-track education reform. Schooling enables people to create stable societies. In contrast, food insecurity stokes violence against women, as well as civil conflict. Disaster risks, such as landslides and rising sea levels linked to climate change, further threaten the security of millions of people.
The Guardian of the United Kingdom summarizes the 2014 HDR findings: More than 2.2 billion people are crammed into living in multidimensional poverty. They bear the features of poor health, school dropouts, and malnutrition, and face the ever-present threat of violence outbreaks.
Worldwide, eight out of 10 lack social protection and 842 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Nearly half of all workers across the world are locked into informal or precarious employment. The gaps between people seeking jobs and available payroll slots will widen substantially in the decade ahead. Africa will reel from the stress most.
Does globalization also ratchet economic vulnerability? “Globalization brought countries together and provided more opportunities. But it also increased the risk of adverse events, like the recession, being transmitted more rapidly.”
Most people in most countries are doing better than ever before, thanks to advances in education, technology and incomes, the HDR said. But it notes “a widespread sense of precariousness in the world today in livelihoods, the environment, personal security and politics.”
Gains made in the late 20th century risk being eroded by climate change. In addition, a global “race to the bottom” by big corporations is forcing more and more workers to live on less and government budgets “balanced on the backs of the poor,” said Khalid Malik, a lead author of the report.
The 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people. “Most problems are due to inadequate policies and poor institutions. It’s not innate that people have to suffer so much.”
Reducing vulnerability is a key ingredient, writes Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, in a contribution to the HDR. “[We] need a broad systemic perspective.” Use a human development lens to take a fresh look at “vulnerability as an overlapping and mutually reinforcing set of risks.”
HDR 2014 “introduces the idea of life cycle vulnerabilities.” These are sensitive points in life where shocks can have greater impact. They include the first 1,000 days in the life of an infant, and the transitions from school to work, and from work to retirement.
“Capabilities accumulate over an individual’s lifetime and have to be nurtured and maintained. Otherwise, they can stagnate and even decline,” the HDR warns. “Life capabilities are affected by investments made in preceding stages of life. And there can be long-term consequences of exposure to short-term shocks.”
Poor children in Ecuador were shown to be already at a vocabulary disadvantage by the age of six. Timely interventions—such as investments in early childhood development—can prevent these being replicated.
One more thing: The data show that “educating women is the closest thing to a silver bullet in human development,” the Guardian notes.
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