The 2023-24 Human Development Index Shows Global Challenges

Rich countries achieve record human development, but half of the poorest lag behind, finds UN Development Programme

In a world marked by widening inequality and political polarization, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released its 2023/24 Human Development Report (HDR), titled “Breaking the Gridlock: Reimagining cooperation in a polarized world”. Explore it in more detail here. The report underscores a concerning trend: while rich countries are experiencing record-high levels of human development, half of the world’s poorest countries remain below their pre-crisis level of progress.

The global Human Development Index (HDI), which measures a country’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, education, and life expectancy, rebounded to reach record highs in 2023 after steep declines during 2020 and 2021. However, this progress is marred by inequality, with almost 40 percent of global trade in goods concentrated in three or fewer countries, and the market capitalization of the three largest tech companies surpassing the GDP of over 90 percent of countries.

Achim Steiner, head of the UN Development Programme, lamented the widening human development gap and the reversal of the two-decade trend of reducing inequalities between wealthy and poor nations. The failure of collective action to address pressing global challenges like climate change, digitalization, poverty, and inequality exacerbates political polarization and erodes trust in people and institutions worldwide.

The HDR also reveals an emerging ‘democracy paradox’, where support for democracy coexists with a preference for leaders who bypass fundamental democratic processes. Political polarization, coupled with a sense of powerlessness, fuels inward-turning policy approaches that hinder global cooperation on urgent issues like decarbonization and digital regulation.

Despite calls for deglobalization, economic interdependence remains high, with no region close to self-sufficiency. The report advocates for a new generation of global public goods, including planetary public goods for climate stability, digital global public goods for equitable human development, and expanded financial mechanisms to complement traditional development aid.

Multilateralism is emphasized as essential for addressing the irreducibly planetary nature of providing global public goods, as bilateral engagements are inadequate. The report calls for new governance approaches to enhance people’s voices in decision-making and combat misinformation.

Key data from the report highlights that while all 38 OECD countries achieved higher HDI scores compared to 2019 levels, more than half of the 35 least developed countries have not yet recovered to their pre-crisis human development levels. Developing regions have shifted to a lower HDI trajectory, signaling potential permanent setbacks in human development progress.

In light of these findings, urgent action is needed to bridge the gap between rich and poor nations and address global challenges collaboratively, lest political polarization and inequality continue to escalate, threatening the well-being and security of societies worldwide.

More key data from the report

  • In 2023, all 38 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) achieved higher Human Development Index (HDI) scores compared to their levels in 2019.
  • Among the 35 least developed countries (LDCs) that experienced a decline in their HDI in 2020 and/or 2021, more than half (18 countries) have not yet recovered to their human development levels of 2019.
  • All developing regions have not met their anticipated HDI levels based on the trend before 2019. It appears they have shifted to a lower HDI trajectory, indicating potential permanent setbacks in future human development progress.
  • The impact of human development losses is in sharp focus in Afghanistan and Ukraine. Afghanistan’s HDI has been knocked back by a staggering ten years, while Ukraine’s HDI dropped to its lowest level since 2004.
  • The report cites research indicating that countries with populist governments have lower GDP growth rates. Fifteen years after a populist government assumes office, the GDP per capita is found to be 10 percent lower than it might under a non-populist government scenario.