Advances in human development risk being erased without a renewed global commitment to eradicating inequality, tackling climate change, and providing basic services, according to the UN's 2014 Human Development Report, Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Enhancing Resilience (pdf), released Thursday in Tokyo, Japan.
While poverty is shown to be in overall decline and gains have been made in health and nutrition, the report states that the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest, and that 1.2 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. It also found that more than 2.2 billion people are living in or near poverty and close to half of all workers are in informal or insecure employment.
"There is also a widespread sense of precariousness in the world today — in livelihoods, in personal security, in the environment and in global politics," the report notes. "There is evidence that the overall rate of progress is slowing across all human development groups. It is critical to deal with vulnerability now to secure gains and prevent disruptions to continuing progress."
Such vulnerability, according to the authors, stems from increasing income inequality, food insecurity, natural disasters, regional conflicts, and political corruption, among other causes. To combat these factors and boost what the report refers to as "human resilience," the UN recommends "universal provision of basic social services," such as education, water supply, health care, and promotion of full employment. It also highlights the importance of social protection — unemployment insurance, pensions, and labor market regulations — in a world where 80 percent of the population lacks such safety net programs.
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The report refutes the idea that only wealthy countries can implement policies like the ones recommended by the UN:
One commonly held misconception is that only wealthy countries can afford social protection or universal basic services. As the Report documents, the evidence is to the contrary. Except for societies undergoing violent strife and turmoil, most societies can — and many have — put in place basic services and social protection. And they have found that an initial investment, of just a small percentage of GDP, brings benefits that far outweigh the initial outlay.
Narrowing the gender gap could have a positive effect on human development, said Khalid Malik, director of the UN Development Program's Human Development Report Office and lead author of the report. Malik told the Guardian: "Mothers influence the population of future countries, and this report shows that educating mothers helps eliminate poverty."
A country's place on the overall Human Development Index (HDI) — based on life expectancy, level of education, and gross national income per capita — is not necessarily a reflection of its level of inequality. For example, the U.S. ranks fifth on the HDI (after Norway, Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands), but falls to 28th on the Inequality-Adjusted HDI, which takes into account health, education, and income disparities across populations.