With Donald Trump annulling climate change agreements and the British Prime Minister, Teresa May, triggering Brexit, this was perhaps not the most auspicious time to release the UN Human Development Report 2016. Yet the report was launched at the Commonwealth’s headquarters in London amid a buzz of positivity. The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, said the theme of the report, “Human Development for Everyone,” chimed perfectly with the organization’s vision which had made inclusivity its priority for more than forty years.
The Secretary-General was particularly proud that more than half of Commonwealth countries are ranked “high” or “very high” in the Human Development Index rankings. She attributed this to the cumulative effect of 50 member countries, comprising a third of the world’s population, working together with shared values enshrined in the Commonwealth charter. She said progress had already been made in engaging young people in peace building, tackling climate change, and boosting intra-Commonwealth trade and investment. She said the Human Development report boosted confidence that the Commonwealth was on the right path.
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Dr. Selim Jahan, Director of UNDP’s Human Development Report, said the findings were based on the principle that every human being counts, and every life is valuable. What humanity has achieved over 25 years, gives hope that fundamental changes are possible. He also acknowledged that substantial barriers persist for human development. As the report highlights, one person in nine in the world is hungry. About 15 million girls a year marry before the age of 18, one every 2 seconds. Ethnic minorities and other groups are often excluded from education, employment, and administrative and political positions resulting in poverty and higher vulnerability to crime including human trafficking. As the report notes, global wealth has become more concentrated. The wealthiest 1 percent of the population had 32 percent of global wealth around the year 2000, and 47 percent around 2010.
Dr. Jahan drew attention to other concerns contained in the report. Every minute, 11 children were dying. Sixty-five million people had been forcibly removed from their homes, a figure roughly equivalent to the population of France. Inequality, he said, was becoming a defining feature of our time.
Dr. Jahan said it was important to look at the positive developments recorded in the report. Every day, 160,000 people were being lifted out of poverty. Communication and information on the impact of climate change have reached more people than ever before, raising awareness in every corner of the world. He spoke of the need for universal policies to tackle specific measures for people with special needs. People will have to be empowered. Further advances were possible. The goals highlighted in the report were not a dream, but achievable.
Commenting on the report, Sir Richard Jolly, from the Institute of Development Studies, thought the main message was bold and positive, at a time when the mood in many countries of the West was cold and negative. “Yet the report gives scores of positive and specific examples of substantial human progress which has been and is being made in many parts of the developing world. This is a tonic for those caught in the onslaught of Western pessimism.”
However, Sir Richard wished the report had probed more deeply the political processes and coalitions which lay behind the positive examples which the report documents. How do good things happen? “On the whole, the Commonwealth countries have done better in terms of Human Development than many others country groups in the world. It would be good to know why – and, also, why some Commonwealth countries still lag. As the Secretary-General said, a Human Development Report focused on the Commonwealth could make a big contribution.”
On the crucial question whether the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) and the objective of universal human development were achievable, Sir Richard was realistic. He believes the formal goal in both cases, is “by 2030.” Almost certainly, universal achievement by 2030 will not happen. “But failure to fully achieve such bold and lofty goals does not mean that we won’t see substantial progress towards Human Development and many of the SDGs. The record of achievements over the last 15 years holds serious promise for further progress over the next 15.”
According to Sir Richard, what happens will depend on the efforts made, nationally and internationally. In spite of strong UK government support for the goals internationally, the UK government has often failed to take them seriously within the country itself. “The reality of this failure feeds a tendency of many people in the UK to give up on the goals in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which is the last thing that should happen. Part of the difficulty is that within Britain, we have seen too many setbacks and cutbacks in the last few years – rising child poverty, the NHS [National Health Service] under desperate pressures, schools looking for funds, etc. It would be good if the goals were used to monitor progress in the UK and to guard against such setbacks.”
Sir Richard proposed a number of measures to follow up on the report. He said people could use it to mobilize for progress in their own countries and check what progress was being made. Schools and universities could use it to spread the ideas of human development among the next generation. Other suggestions included writing letters to the newspapers about it, especially to counter “Fake News,” narrow nationalistic perspectives, or excessively pessimistic news. “There’s lots of more positive ammunition in the report to counter such tendencies.”
Although governments in the United States and elsewhere may be winding back on hard-fought pledges on human rights, gender equality, climate change, and other pillars of development and wellbeing, the UN Human Development Report and the Commonwealth seek to offer a note of hope by urging people to take on the challenge to ensure that development is inclusive and no one is left behind. Eliminating inequality will be a long journey, but moving ahead one step at a time will be better than standing still.