Twenty years is a good enough time to assess how countries of the world, irrespective of the economic or political system they follow, have performed in promoting human development. Successive Human Development Reports (HDR), since 1990, have mainstreamed health and education as critical indicators of human progress and contributed to international policy structures. For instance, the Millennium Development Goals, aimed at using international financial resources to reduce global poverty, can be traced to the HDR-1991 on financing development. Significantly, this year's HDR has made long-term innovations in measuring development. First, it reconfigures its indicators on literacy and income. Replacing ‘gross enrolment' and ‘adult literacy rates' with ‘expected years of schooling' and ‘mean years of schooling' makes for a deeper understanding of this important socioeconomic attribute, particularly as literacy rates, which are rising around the world, could gloss over structural weaknesses. Replacing ‘Gross Domestic Product' with ‘Gross National Income', which includes international income flows, would bring in a fresh perspective on an economy's standing, particularly in the current globalising context of a country's poverty reduction programmes. Secondly, HDR-2010 introduces three indices — the Multidimensional Poverty Index, the Gender Inequality Index and the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index — aimed at gaining a deeper appreciation of a country's development path.

The 2010 Report, The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development, comes as a timely reality check on India's global standing. It shows that, despite recording a phenomenal economic growth recently, India continues to remain in the bottom-50 on human development — it is placed at 119 out of 169. The report points to critical social failures. Its new indicators on education tell the story of how rising literacy rates are no cause for comfort. The ‘mean years of schooling' is only 4.4, compared to the global figure of 7.4; and the ‘expected years of schooling' of 10.3 is short of the global average of 12.3. These are particularly important pointers at a time when India prepares to give its children the right to free and compulsory education. At a theoretical level, it is noteworthy that the report finds a “weak long-term association” between income growth and changes in education and health. This finding, read along with the failure of ‘trickle down' theories to deliver, only re-emphasises the need to rethink economic growth strategies, particularly in the developing world.

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