UNDP: Wealthy nations forge ahead while poor nations continue to falter

BySam Ursu

UNDP: Wealthy nations forge ahead while poor nations continue to falter

The 2023/24 Human Development Report from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reveals that while wealthy countries are continuing to make progress, the countries most in need of development aid are experiencing drastic declines in their standard of living.

The UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI), the international gold standard for measuring a country’s well-being, notes that wealthy nations have made significant gains in 2023 following rather steep declines during the pandemic years of 2020-2021. Unfortunately, developing countries have moved in the opposite direction, recording significant declines on a number of development axes, including gross national income (GNI) per capita, education, and life expectancy.

According to the UNDP, it is gross inequalities that are fueling this growing divide between wealthier nations and developing countries. The UNDP 2023/24 Human Development Report notes that almost 40% of global trade is concentrated in just three countries and that the market capitalization of the three biggest tech companies in the world is higher than the GDP of more than 90% of all countries.

“The widening human development gap shows that the twenty-year trend of trying to reduce inequalities between wealthy and poor countries is now in reverse for the first time on record. Despite our best efforts, we are falling well short,” said Achim Steiner, head of the UNDP. “This gridlock carries a human toll. Our failure to achieve collective action worsens polarization and further erodes trust in institutions worldwide.”

A half-hearted slog through quicksand

With just six years to go to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the UNDP notes that achieving progress feels like a “half-hearted slog through quicksand.”

On a number of issues, including runaway climate change, unconstitutional transfers of government powers, cascading human rights violation, massacres, genocides, and even issues such as a lack of digital standards to rein in Artificial Intelligence (AI), achieving global cooperation remains frustratingly out of reach. According to the UNDP’s 2023/24 Human Development Report, progress is being bedeviled by an overreliance on “magic bullet” solutions, “sloganeering that exploits group-based grievances”.

“Slick solutions and simple recipes poison our willingness to do the hard work of overcoming polarization,” it noted.

According to the UNDP, “geopolitical quagmires” abound, driven by national gazes “yanked inward” by inequalities, insecurity, and polarization as the world’s great powers compete amongst themselves.

The UNDP notes that the first-ever fall on global Human Development Index (HDI) values that occurred in 2020 has failed to rebound for the vast majority of people on planet Earth. Furthermore, even OECD member states, which have seen some positive progress on HDI, are still below where they should be according to pre-pandemic forecasts. Even in Europe, the region’s 2023 HDI value is below its pre-2019 trend.

More than half the global population now supports national leaders who are willing to undermine democracy as trust in governance has plummeted sharply since the pandemic. This large-scale sense of disempowerment is taking “combined hits” from new configurations of global complexity, uncertainty, insecurity, and polarization.

The UNDP report found that populism has exploded in recent years as a result of mismanaged globalization. Furthermore, most people’s ability to determine for themselves what it means to live a good life has been crowded out due to policy and institutional mismanagement by global market forces. According to the UNDP, the planet now stands at “an unfortunate crossroad,” where polarization and distrust are on a collision course with resource scarcity and disempowering narratives.

How can things be turned around?

The UNDP’s 2023/24 Human Development Report contains a number of proposed solutions to turn things around and reverse the downward trend in global human progress.

The first item recommended by the UNDP is to create a “21st-century architecture” suitable to meet the needs of the 21st century in order to deliver the “global public goods” that we all depend on. This new architecture envisions greater transfers of money and resources from rich countries to poorer ones in a manner that benefits everyone. Furthermore, this increase in global public goods transfer is envisioned as being complementary to, rather than as a substitute for (or a competitor of), traditional development assistance.

The second prong of the UNDP’s recommendations to reverse the global trend of decreasing HDI values is that greater efforts are needed to “dial down the temperature” and push back on polarizing rhetoric and that greater transfers of wealth to poorer countries can assist with this. In addition, further efforts are needed to combat misinformation and to counteract “false social realities” and misperceptions. However, as not all polarization is the result of misinformation, it is also essential to create “spaces of deliberation” such as citizens’ assemblies where issues can be discussed by the public at large.

Source: 2023/24 Human Development Report (HDR)

The third plank in the UNDP’s strategy for improving global HDI values is to narrow agency gaps, referring to the startling results of their surveys that show that two-thirds of people on the planet now believe that they have little influence on the decisions of their government. The proposed solution to this agency gap is for institutions to become more “people-centered, co-owned, and future-oriented.” The UNDP believes that this will put the world on the road to productive dialogue and action as it will “break through the tyranny” of single adversarial narratives and help cooperatively and peacefully break through the ongoing global gridlock.

Falling indices of human development

The UNDP’s 2023/24 Human Development Report contains a number of grim facts, including:

  • In 2022, the number of forcibly displaced people reached 108 million, the highest since World War II.
  • War fatalities have seen drastic increases in the past two years.
  • There is now a growing number of one-sided conflicts where unarmed civilian populations are being attacked.
  • Climate change is not being addressed, leading to a host of negative ripple effects, including increased migration, decreased health, and geopolitical upheaval.
  • The growth in populism not only disrupts democratic norms but is very costly, economically.
  • Low and middle-income countries’ debt servicing costs have ballooned over the past two years after central banks in wealthy countries hiked interest rates in order to combat inflation.
  • The number of people living outside their country of birth is 280 million or 3.6% of the global population, triple the rate in 1970.
  • Global corporate tax revenues lost due to profit shifting to tax havens have skyrocketed to a value that is estimated to be the equivalent of 10% of global corporate tax revenues collected.
  • Lower confidence levels in national governments directly correlates with lower confidence levels in the United Nations and other international institutions.
  • Freedom of expression indices have been receding in recent years and are now lower worldwide than they have been since 1988.
  • The UNDP’s 2023 Gender Social Norms Index has revealed that nearly half of all people believe that men make better political leaders than women.

The UNDP’s report concludes by saying, “We can do better. We have a lot going for us. Let’s get moving,” but only time will tell if the downward trend in HDI values can be reversed as the 2030 deadline approaches.