Human development index

About expanding human choice

The Human Development Index (HDI), developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is a summary measure of average achievement in three key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.

The HDI was created to emphasise that expanding human choices should be the ultimate criterion for assessing development results. Economic growth is a means to that process, but is not an end by itself. Nevertheless, the HDI captures only part of what human development entails, since it does not reflect on inequalities, poverty, human security, empowerment, happiness, etc.

The concept of human development is much broader than what can be captured by the HDI, or by any other composite index in the Human Development Report (Inequality-adjusted HDI, Gender Development Index, Gender Inequality Index and Multidimensional Poverty Index). The composite indices are a focused measure of human development, zooming in on a few selected areas. A comprehensive assessment of human development requires analysis of other human development indicators.

At The Natural Step, we use the combination of the HDI with the Ecological Footprint (EF) to show that when human development of a country increases, the Ecological Footprint increases as well, often dramatically.

Human Development Index (HDI) related to Ecological Footprint

World biocapacity per person
  North America
  Latin America
  European Union
  Other Europe
  Middle East/Central Asia

Source: Ecological Footprint data from Global Footprint Network 2016, National Footprint Accounts, 2016 Edition, HDI values from UNDP

UN Human Development Index (HDI)
UN Human Development Index (HDI)
UN Human Development Index (HDI)

Source: Ecological Footprint data from Global Footprint Network 2016, National Footprint Accounts, 2016 Edition, HDI values from UNDP

The most recent version of the HDI from 2014 covers 188 countries. In general, the rankings change just a little between successive years because of the nature of the HDI component indicators. The HDI is the geometric mean of normalised indices for each of these three dimensions:

  • The health dimension is assessed by life expectancy at birth.
  • The education dimension is measured by years of schooling for adults aged 25 years and above and expected years of schooling for children of school-entering age.
  • The standard of living dimension is measured by gross national income per capita. The HDI uses the logarithm of income to reflect the diminishing importance of income with increasing gross national income (GNI).

The scores for the three HDI dimension indices are then aggregated into a composite index using the geometric mean. The UN defines 0.8 as being desirable, applying a scale from zero to one.

For example, Germany’s HDI value for 2014, the latest available, is 0.916, which corresponds to rank six out of 188 countries and territories around the globe. This value reflects that Germany belongs to the “very high human development” category, together with countries like Norway, Australia, Switzerland, Denmark and Netherlands, currently representing the top five.

human development index multicultural
human development index multicultural
human development index multicultural

The HDI uses various data sources:

  • Life expectancy at birth: the data are provided by UN DESA, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, a vital interface between global policies in the economic, social and environmental spheres and national action. Its work is guided by the universal, integrated and transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, along with a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 associated targets adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September 2015.
  • Mean years of schooling: various sources, such as the Barro-Lee “Educational Attainment Dataset” (2014), UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2015) and Human Development Report Office updates based on UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2015).
  • Expected years of schooling: the data are taken from studies conducted by UNESCO (2015).
  • Gross national income (GNI) per capita: the data used are provided by the World Bank (2015), IMF (2015) and UNSD.

Even though a positive trend can be seen in different aspects of the HDI, we should realise that structural obstacles continue to exist. Being subject to these, or a witness, affects peoples’ trust in the system and is a potential source of behaviour with negative effects in society, both local and global. At The Natural Step, we take a whole systems approach to focus on the key causes of social and ecological unsustainability.