5.3 Human Development Index

Defining Human Development

As a geographically literate scholar and citizen, you should be following current events around the world. If you do this, you will undoubtedly hear many discussions about development. You will hear discussions of some countries that are “developing” and other countries that are “developed.” You might also hear terms like “First World” and “Third World.” You will also hear about how well development in the United States or other countries is going at any given time. Finally, you will hear discussions about specific types of development, such as sustainable development. However, what does all this mean?

It turns out that “development” does not have one single, simple definition. There are multiple definitions and multiple facets to any one definition. There are also multiple, competing opinions on the various understandings of what “development” is. Often, “development” is viewed as being a good thing, and it is easy to see why. People in “developed” countries tend to have longer lives, more comfortable housing, more options for careers and entertainment, and much more. However, whether or not “development” is good is ultimately a question of ethics. Just as there are multiple views on ethics, there are multiple views on whether or not “development” is good. Later in this module, we will see some cases in which “development” might not be considered to be good.

The simplest and most common measures for development are those based on monetary statistics like income or gross domestic product (GDP, which measures in monetary terms how much an economy is producing). These monetary statistics are readily available for countries and other types of places across the world and are very convenient to work with. Likewise, it is easy to find a good map of these statistics, such as this one of GDP.

However, statistics like income and GDP are controversial. One can have a high income or GDP and low quality of life. Put, there is more to life than money. Furthermore, monetary statistics often overlook essential activities that do not involve money, such as cooking, cleaning, raising children, and even subsistence farming. These activities are often performed by women, so a focus on monetary statistics often brings significant underestimates of the contributions of women to society. Finally, high incomes and GDPs are often associated with sizeable environmental degradation. From an ecocentric ethical view, that is a problem.

Another way of looking at development is one based on health statistics such as life expectancy or child mortality. These statistics show another facet of development. In many cases, those with much money also have better health. However, this trend does not always hold. Take a look at this life expectancy map:

How does the Life Expectancy map in Figure 5.2 compares to the GDP map (Figure 5.1)? What patterns are similar? Is there anything different? Why might this be?

A third way of looking at development is one based on end uses. End uses are the ultimate purposes of whatever our economies are producing. For example, the end uses of agriculture are proper nutrition, tasty eating experiences, and maybe a few other things like the socializing that occurs during meals. The end uses of the construction of buildings involve things like having places for us to be in that comfortable, productive, and beautiful. For transportation, end uses are being in the places we want to be.

Take a look at the following undernourishment map: How does this map compare to the GDP and Life Expectancy map? What patterns are similar? Is there anything different? While most of the worlds undernourished live in low-income countries, is there an exception?

A focus on end uses us a different perspective on development than a focus on money. One can have much money, but little of end uses. For example, a poorly designed city can force us to spend much money on transportation, and we will still be stuck in traffic a lot. Alternatively, major environmental catastrophes often lead us to conduct much economic activity to clean things up, which can increase GDP. Meanwhile, one can have many ends uses without much money. For example, people can grow their food and have a delicious, nutritious diet without being affluent at all.

At the core of this discussion of development is one very fundamental question: What is it that we ultimately care about as a society? If we ultimately care about money, then the monetary statistics are good representations of development, and we should be willing to make sacrifices of other things in order to get more money. Alternatively, if end uses are what we ultimately care about, then it is essential to look beyond monetary statistics and consider the systems of development that bring us the end uses that we want.

What is Development Today?

Hans Rosling is a Swedish demographer and teacher who has gained global fame through lively videos about global demographics, in particular at the TED conferences. If you are not already familiar, TED is an excellent resource of entertaining and informative talks from a great variety of people. Here is a TED talk from Rosling (20:35):

Rosling makes several important points in this video:

  • Many of us have misperceptions about global demographic data such as child mortality.
  • The variation within regions (such as sub-Saharan Africa) and within countries can be more significant than the variation between different regions or countries.
  • The divide between the more-developed and less-developed countries no longer exists. Instead, there is a continuum of development around the world with no gap in the middle.
  • Quality visualization is essential for understanding and communicating demographic data.

Now, let us take a look at the map of GDP per capita, of course, bearing in mind the limitations of the GDP statistic.

A few points are worth making about this map. First, the map shows GDP per capita, i.e., per person. Per capita statistics are usually more helpful for showing what is going on in a place. Recall the map of world GDP from the previous page. That map would show, for example, that China has a much larger GDP than, say, Switzerland. However, that is because China has a much larger population than Switzerland, not because China has reached a more advanced level of development. Most people would consider Switzerland to be more developed than China.

Second, the wealthier areas are North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and a few countries in the Middle East. These are the countries that are commonly considered to be “developed.” The rest of the countries are commonly considered to be “developing.” However, there is no clear divide between “developed” and “developing” visible on this map. Instead, there are countries at all points along the continuum from “developed” to “developing.”

Third, there are a few places on the map that are colored gray. These are places where no data is available. Usually, there is a compelling reason for data as basic as GDP to be unavailable. The map here uses data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), so the gray represents places that the IMF has no data for. Here are probable reasons for why some data is unavailable for this map: Greenland is not an independent country but is a territory of Denmark. French Guiana (in northern South America) is also not an independent country but is a territory of France. Western Sahara is a disputed territory fighting for independence from Morocco. Somalia and Zimbabwe have dysfunctional governments and probably did not report data to the IMF. Finally, Cuba and North Korea are not part of the IMF. GDP statistics are available for most of these regions from sources other than the IMF.

World Development Throughout History

There is one more point to consider about the GDP map shown earlier: It only shows one point in time. The map tells us something about development around the world today, but it does not explain how we got here. Even the Rosling video, which shows an animation over time, does not offer much in the way of explanation. This leaves out the critical question: Why is it that some countries are more developed, or at least have more money, than others?

Understanding the patterns of development we see today requires understanding the history of development around the world. Historical geography is the study of the historical dimensions of our world and is very important here. It turns out that certain aspects of the environment have played essential roles in the history of development on Earth. This is a very old story, and it is worth starting at the beginning: at the origin of agriculture. Agriculture is an important starting point for development because the increased food supplies enable larger populations and enable some people to devote their time to tasks other than producing food. This labor specialization is necessary for the diverse other human activities required for development.

Agriculture originated independently in several regions around the world. In the map below, the green areas are regions where agriculture originated, and the arrows show directions that agriculture spread from its areas of origin.

However, all agriculture is not equal. Some agriculture is more productive than others. Likewise, some of these regions where agriculture originated are likely to develop more successfully than others. Key factors include the region’s growing conditions (including temperature, precipitation, latitude, and soils) and the types of plants and animals available for planting and domestication. Many regions had good growing conditions, but of all the regions in the world, one had especially rich plants and animals to use. That region is the Fertile Crescent, which is located in the Middle East as seen on the map above.

Environmental Determinism

The idea that the outcomes of civilization were determined entirely by environmental factors is known as environmental determinism. This idea has been heavily critiqued. Even though environmental factors like plants and animals for agriculture can help explain some significant patterns in development, such as why advanced civilization developed in Eurasia but not in Papua New Guinea, it cannot explain everything. For example, it cannot explain the major differences in development found today between adjacent countries such as the Dominican Republic (more prosperous) and Haiti (poorer) or South Korea (more prosperous) and North Korea (more deprived). The distinction between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is even visible from space. Environmental determinism assumes that the environment determines all development and difference, but some patterns, like what we observe between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, are not explainable by environmental factors alone.

In this image, Haiti is on the left, and the Dominican Republic is on the right. This part of Haiti is almost completely deforested, as is much of the rest of the country, but the deforestation ends abruptly at the political border. From our systems perspective, this is humanity impacting the environment, not the environment impacting humanity. What is essential to understand is that the patterns of development that we see have both environmental and social causes. The environment can explain some of why advanced civilization emerged on Eurasia instead of elsewhere, but only social factors can explain why, for example, the Dominican Republic is richer than Haiti or South Korea is richer than North Korea. In other words, environmental resources can contribute to development trajectories, just like many other geographic factors such as culture, climate, topography, and proximity to major waterways. However, no single one of those components is ever the determining factor.

Environmental determinism came to prominence in the early twentieth century, but its popularity declined over time. This is partly due to its shortcomings, and also a recognition that it was often used as a justification for colonial conquest and slavery. In contrast to the unidirectional conceptualization of human-environment relationships, environmental possibilism arose as a mild notion where the environmental constraints are still recognized, but the freedom and capability of humans to change and structure the environment are highlighted. Environmental determinism and possibilism represented geographers’ first attempts at generalizing what accounts for the pattern of human occupation of the Earth’s surface in modern times.

Development’s Downsides

Thus far in the module, we have seen several examples in which development has increased health and quality of life. However, development can also reduce the health and quality of life. Often, when development has these downsides, it is for reasons related to the environment. When development impacts the environment in ways that harm certain groups of people, it raises issues of environmental justice.

First, let us consider some connections between economic development, human health, and justice by completing the following reading assignment:

The fact that poor, and often minority, populations are more likely to live within proximity to facilities that have adverse health effects has helped establish the environmental justice movement. Research on environmental justice has shown that political and economic systems structure the conditions that contribute to poor health and help explain variations within societies in the rates of non-communicable chronic diseases such as diabetes or cancer.

Within the United States, the environmental justice movement has worked to show how the byproducts of development, such as chemical factories, waste facilities, and toxic chemicals, create hazardous conditions for people living near them. Here is one example of environmental justice in the United States; watch this video about Camden in New Jersey (4.5 minutes):

However, environmental justice is not just a domestic American issue. It is also a global issue. The globalized nature of our economy and our environment causes pollutions and other environmental indignities to become concentrated in particular world regions. Quite often, those regions are the regions of the poorest and least powerful of the world’s people. This can be seen in the following video on e-waste (or electronic waste) in Accra, Ghana’s capital city (6 minutes):

When you no longer want an electronic device that you own, what do you do with it? Where does it end up? Does it end up causing harm to other people? Who are these people? Do they deserve to be harmed by your e-waste?

Moreover, what can you do about it? These are all difficult questions raised by our ownership of electronic devices. Furthermore, similar questions are raised by other items that we own and the activities that we pursue.

Finally, it is noteworthy that environmental justice is not only about which populations suffer from the burdens of economic development (also known as environmental bads), but also about who has access to environmental goods: that contribute to human health. For example, poor communities and populations of color are often denied access to parks, open space, full-service grocery stores, and hospitals. The environmental justice movement, therefore, has expanded to ask critical questions about which human populations suffer the burdens of economic development, and which benefit the most from it.

Human Development Index

In order to analyze the world based on various levels of development, the term development must be defined. Development is the process of improving the material conditions of people through the diffusion of knowledge and technology. All nations lie somewhere in the range of more developed countries (MDC) to less developed countries (LDC).

A nation’s development level is based on the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI), which focuses on economic, social, and demographic development. More specifically, the HDI focuses on a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) for economics, literacy rates and education for social factors, and life expectancy for demographics. A country’s gross domestic product is the total market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a year. GDP per capita is often considered an indicator of a country’s standard of living.

Standard of living refers to the level of wealth, happiness, comfort, and material goods, necessities available to a specific socioeconomic class in a particular geographic area. The standard of living includes factors such as income, quality and availability of employment, class disparity, poverty rate, quality and affordability of housing, hours of work required to purchase necessities, GDP, inflation rates, affordability to quality health care, quality and availability of education, life expectancy, incidence of disease, cost of goods and services, infrastructure, national economic growth, economic and political stability, political and religious freedom, environmental quality, to name a few. It is interesting to note that the United States is not the highest on the HDI. The U.S. ranks 3rd because it is lower in education standards and life expectancy than most developed nations.

Standard of Living

Jobs can be classified into three major types of sectors, which greatly influence the economics, standards of living, trade, and even social classes within a society. The first is called the primary sector, which are jobs directly related to the extraction of the Earth’s natural resources (e.g., forestry, raw materials, or agriculture). In the secondary sector, jobs are focused on manufacturing raw materials from the primary sector to usable products. The tertiary sector provides goods and services to people in exchange for payment. These types of jobs include lawyers, doctors, educators, banking, retail, athletes, and others.

It is probably apparent that the majority of the jobs in developed countries (MDCs) are tertiary. There are primary and secondary sector jobs in countries like the United States, but the driving economic force is in the tertiary sector. MDCs are also more productive than LDCs, not because they work harder, but because of access and use of technology. In economics, productivity is the value of a particular product compared to the amount of labor needed to make it. Value added is the gross value of the product minus the cost of raw materials and energy.

Access to Quality Education

MDCs can invest more money and resources because of their economies. Thus their people tend to be more educated, healthier, children are more likely to survive, and adults tend to live longer than those in LDCs. Probably the two most important or essential components to have a nation’s developmental status to begin to rise is through education and health care. There is a direct correlation to development and education. The more developed a nation, the more educated the population. One of the best indicators of a nation’s level of development is its literacy rate, the percent of people who can read or write. In MDCs, the literacy rate is usually around 98 percent, whereas, in LDCs, the literacy rate is around 60 percent. Its impact of this is that books are written for people in MDCs and scientific advances tend to occur in these countries. Compared to LDCs, MDCs spend less of their GDP on education because their GDP’s are so high. A small amount of a developed nation’s GDP can have a higher monetary value than large amounts coming from the GDP of a less developed nation. In terms of percentage, LDCs spend more of their GDP on education than MDCs need to. In LDCs, the children going to school often have outdated books and not written in their primary language. Often in LDCs, more schools are private than public because the government cannot fund them. Outside religious groups and nonprofit organizations fund many of these schools.

Access to Health Care

People are often healthier in MDCs than LDCs because of diet and healthcare. With diet, people in MDCs tend to have more access to calories, nutrients, and protein. However, there is a dark side to this as well. Many developed countries are now experiencing major obesity issues. More people in the world are obese than are hungry. It is not just about consuming too much food; many nutrition experts would also question the quality of the protein and nutrients from this food that more and more is in the form of trans fats.

With access to healthcare, MDCs tend to invest more in public health than possible in LDCs. This is done at the governmental, private business, and individual level. In MDCs, there is a much lower ratio of nurses or doctors to patients than in LDCs. Because of this investment in health, the life expectancy in MDCs is much higher. Men tend to live ten years longer than those compared to LDCs; women can expect to live 13 years longer in MDCs than in LDCs. There is a gender issue related to this too. In MDCs, men tend to live ten years longer than women LDCs. However, higher life expectancy comes with a price too. People tend to work longer into their life, preventing the advancement of younger generations. The longer life expectancy through retirement also means that social programs must support an aging population.

Children also tend to have a higher survival rate, called infant mortality rates, in MDCs than in LDCs. In MDCs, the survival rate of children is near 99 percent, whereas in LDCs the rate is around 94 percent. Children tend to have higher mortality rates in LDCs because of malnutrition, starvation, dehydration, disease, and lack of access to health services and professionals.


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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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