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Addressing vulnerabilities

This year’s edition of the Human Development Report contains a set of practical recommendations.

The report connects human vulnerability to factors and conditions that erode people’s capabilities and freedoms. The report connects human vulnerability to factors and conditions that erode people’s capabilities and freedoms.

The 2014 Human Development Report (HDR) draws attention to the urgent need to address human vulnerabilities and build resilience as conditions for accelerating and sustaining progress. Human insecurity stems from not only low and uncertain incomes, but from many other sources, including inadequate access to health, food and shelter, unsafe environments, and inadequate protection of civil and political freedoms. Individuals experience vulnerability when they become physically weak, economically impoverished, socially dependent, publicly humiliated or psychologically harmed. Families feel vulnerable when they do not have access to good quality affordable healthcare, when they are exposed to unsafe environments, or when safety is compromised when societies are faced with crime and violence. At the same time, all new born babies are vulnerable to diseases, just as all women are to domestic violence. Preparing citizens for a less vulnerable future entails strengthening the intrinsic resilience of communities and countries. The HDR recommends how to do this.

The report connects human vulnerability to factors and conditions that erode people’s capabilities and freedoms. The concept of vulnerability becomes less abstract, the report argues, when broken down into who is vulnerable, what are they vulnerable to, and why.  People feel vulnerable when they lack core capabilities that prevent them from doing things they value and in coping with threats they face without suffering serious consequences.

The report identifies “structurally vulnerable” groups of people that are more vulnerable than others by virtue of their history or of their unequal treatment by the rest of society. Such a disadvantage can be traced to many factors, including gender, ethnicity and geographic location. Human insecurity is compounded by the overlapping of structural vulnerabilities. For example, this could happen to groups that, in addition to having to cope with disabilities, are also poor and belong to a minority group.

The report has an interesting discussion on “life-cycle vulnerabilities” that are contingent upon a person’s age, and hence, stage in life. For example, new born babies are particularly vulnerable during the first 1,000 days of life, older children during the transition from school to work, and adults when they move from the world of work to an era of retirement. Since capabilities are built over a lifetime, the report argues that setbacks at these critical points in a person’s life can have adverse and prolonged impacts. For instance, neglecting childhood development has serious ramifications for learning in school, holding on to a job and coping with growing old. Such neglect also transmits vulnerabilities to the next generation.

The HDRs have gained popularity because of the ranking of countries on the Human Development Index (HDI). What does the 2014 HDR reveal? The not-so-good news is that there has been no change in India’s rank on the HDI. As in 2012, India continues to rank 135 out of 186 countries for which the index has been computed. In South Asia, whereas Sri Lanka (ranked 73) and the Maldives (ranked 103) fare better, India does marginally better than Bhutan (ranked 136) and Bangladesh (ranked 142), and much better than Nepal (ranked 145), Pakistan (ranked 146) and Afghanistan (ranked 169).

India fares badly on gender equality and ranks 127 on the Gender Development Index (GDI) — a new measure of gender gaps in levels of human development achievements for 148 countries. Countries are ranked based on the absolute deviation from gender parity on the HDI. This means countries are penalised not only for gaps that disfavour women, but also for those that disfavour men. The largest gender gap in HDI is observed in South Asia (17 per cent), followed by Arab states and sub-Saharan Africa, with a gap of about 13 per cent each. The most unequal is Afghanistan, where the HDI for females is only 60 per cent of the male HDI.

Four other findings merit attention. First, the top five countries leading the HDI ranking are Norway, Australia, Switzerland, Netherlands and the United States — the same as in 2012. Similarly, as in 2012, the lowest scores in HDI are Niger, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic and Sierra Leone. For the first time, Japan no longer ranks first on the HDI among Asian countries. Three countries have done better: Singapore, Hong Kong and, importantly, South Korea. Second, levels in human development continue to rise, though the pace has slowed for all regions over 2008-13 compared to 2000-08. Third, inequalities in health are decreasing, those in education remain persistently high, and income inequality continues to grow particularly in developing countries. Four, computation of the Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) reveals that, despite recent progress in poverty reduction, more than 2.2 billion people are either near or living in multidimensional poverty. It is however unfortunate that the Indian government’s reluctance and subsequent delay in commissioning the fourth round of the National Family Health Survey has meant that data used for computation of the MPI is seriously outdated (pertains to 2005-06).

Returning to the main theme, the report contains a set of practical recommendations for addressing vulnerabilities and building resilience to future shocks. It advocates embracing the principles of equity and universalism, putting people first, and investing in strengthening collective voice and action. The HDR calls for reinforcing universal access to basic social services, especially health and education, introducing well-designed interventions to address life-cycle vulnerabilities (focusing on early childhood and the transitions from youth to young adulthood and from adulthood to old age), and strengthening social protection (including unemployment insurance and pension programmes). The report highlights the need to build capacities for disaster preparedness and recovery so that communities can better deal with and recover from shocks. At the macro level, it rightly calls for a commitment to full employment (rather than targets of economic growth), recognising that the value of employment extends far beyond the income it generates. The report’s main takeaway is that unless vulnerabilities are addressed immediately and effectively, and efforts are made to ensure that every member of society benefits from investments in human development, human progress can be neither equitable nor sustainable. This is indeed a timely and important message — not just for India but for all nations of the world.

The writer, an economist, is member of the advisory panel and senior advisor to the UNDP’s Human Development Report Office.

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