A report published by the U.N. Development Program finds the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, economic uncertainty and other crises have halted progress in human development and reversed gains made over the past three decades.
Data from 191 countries show 90% failed to achieve a better, healthier, more secure life for their people in 2020 and 2021. For the first time in 32 years, the UNDP’s Human Development Index, which measures a nation’s progress, finds human development has declined for two years running.
U.N. Development Program administrator Achim Steiner said that is unprecedented.
“Nine out of 10 countries in this year’s human development report index are shown to have faced a decline,” Steiner said. “This has never happened before even during the last devastating global moment of crisis, the financial crisis, only one out of 10 countries faced a decline in human development indices.”
The Human Development Index captures a picture of a nation’s health, education, and standard of living. This year’s rankings show some countries are beginning to get back on their feet, while others remain mired in deepening crises. The report finds Latin America, the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia have been particularly hard hit.
Switzerland tops this year’s rankings, followed by Norway, Iceland, Hong Kong, Australia, and other wealthy nations. Countries from sub-Saharan Africa are among the lowest ranked in human development, with South Sudan at the bottom.
The report’s lead author, Pedro Conceicao, said the unprecedented decline in human development was driven by economic recession, and by an extraordinary decline in life expectancy. That, he said, includes the 21st-ranked United States, which has seen a dramatic drop in life expectancy due to COVID-19 from 79 years to 76.1 years.
Conceicao said other new data from the report show global levels of trust are the lowest on record. He added those who are most mistrustful hold the most extreme political views.
“Uncertainty and the feeling of insecurity hardens people’s commitments to a group that shares a similar set of beliefs and increases hostility to other groups that think differently,” he said. “And digital technology often adds fuel to this flame of divisiveness. So, as a result, the report documents that democratic practices are under stress.”
The report warns insecurity and polarization are feeding off each other. And that, it says, is preventing nations from taking the collective action needed to address the multiple threats and crises the world is facing.