Human Development Index (HDI)

What Is the Human Development Index (HDI)?

The Human Development Index (HDI) is a statistic developed and compiled by the United Nations to measure various countries’ levels of social and economic development. It is composed of four principal areas of interest: mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling, life expectancy at birth, and gross national income (GNI) per capita. This index is a tool used to follow changes in development levels over time and compare the development levels of different countries.

Key Takeaways

  • The Human Development Index (HDI) is a measurement system used by the United Nations to evaluate the level of individual human development in each country.
  • The HDI uses components such as average annual income and educational expectations to rank and compare countries.
  • The HDI has been criticized by social advocates for not representing a broad enough measure of quality of life and by economists for providing little additional useful information beyond simpler measures of the economic standard of living.
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Human Development Index (HDI)

Understanding the Human Development Index (HDI)

The HDI was established to place emphasis on individuals—or, more precisely, on their opportunities to realize satisfying work and lives. Evaluating a country’s potential for individual human development provides a supplementary metric for evaluating a country’s level of development besides considering standard economic growth statistics, such as gross domestic product (GDP).

This index also can be used to examine the various policy choices of nations; if, for example, two countries have approximately the same GNI per capita, then the HDI can help to evaluate why they produce widely disparate human development outcomes. Proponents of the HDI hope it can be used to stimulate such productive public policy debate.

How Is the HDI Measured?

The HDI is a summary measurement of basic achievement levels in human development. The computed HDI of a country is an average of indexes of each of the life aspects that are examined: knowledge and understanding, a long and healthy life, and an acceptable standard of living. Each of the four components is normalized to scale between 0 and 1, and then the geometric mean of the three components is calculated.

The health aspect of the HDI is measured by the life expectancy, as calculated at the time of birth, in each country, and normalized so that this component is equal to 0 when life expectancy is 20 and equal to 1 when life expectancy is 85.

Education is measured on two levels: the mean years of schooling for residents of a country, and the expected years of schooling that a child has at the average age for starting school. These are each separately normalized so that 15 mean years of schooling equal 1, and 18 years of expected schooling equal 1, and a simple mean of the two is calculated.

The metric chosen to represent the standard of living is GNI per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP), a common metric used to reflect average income. The standard of living is normalized so that it is equal to 1 when GNI per capita is $75,000 and equal to 0 when GNI per capita is $100.

The final HDI score for each country is calculated as a geometric mean of the three components by taking the cube root of the product of the normalized component scores.

Limitations of the HDI

There are criticisms of the HDI. It is a simplification and an admittedly limited evaluation of human development. The HDI does not specifically reflect quality-of-life factors, such as empowerment movements or overall feelings of security.

In recognition of these facts, the U.N. Human Development Report Office (HDRO) provides additional composite indices to evaluate other life aspects, including inequality issues such as gender disparity or racial inequality. Examination and evaluation of a country’s HDI are best done in concert with examining these and other factors, such as the country’s rate of economic growth, expansion of employment opportunities, and the success of initiatives undertaken to improve the overall quality of life within a country.

Several economists say the HDI is essentially redundant as a result of the high correlations among the HDI, its components, and simpler measures of income per capita. GNI per capita (or even GDP per capita) correlates very highly with both the overall HDI and the other two components in both values and rankings. Given these strong and consistent correlations, they say, it would be simpler and clearer to just compare per-capita GNI across countries than to spend time and resources collecting data for the additional components that provide little or no additional information for the overall index.

Indeed, a fundamental principle of the composite index design is to not include multiple additional components that are strongly correlated in a way that suggests that they might reflect the same underlying phenomenon. This is to prevent inefficient double counting and avoid introducing additional sources of potential errors in the data.

In the case of the HDI, the inclusion of the components is problematic because it is easily plausible that higher average incomes directly lead to both more investment in formal education and better health and longevity. Moreover, definitions and measurement of years of schooling and life expectancy can vary widely from country to country.

What Are the Four Indicators of the Human Development Index (HDI)?

The Human Development Index (HDI) measures each country’s social and economic development by focusing on the following four factors: mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling, life expectancy at birth, and gross national income (GNI) per capita.

Is a High HDI Good or Bad?

The higher the HDI, the better. A high HDI essentially means that the country in question offers a generally high standard of living, with decent healthcare, education, and opportunities to earn money.

Which Countries Have the Highest HDI?

In the latest HDI ranking, from 2020, Norway finished first with a HDI value of 0.957. Ireland and Switzerland tied for second, while the United States was ranked 17th with an HDI value of 0.926.

Article Sources

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  1. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports. “Human Development Index (HDI).” Accessed Jan. 27, 2022.

  2. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports. “Technical Notes: Calculating the Human Development Indices—Graphical Presentation,” Pages 2–3. Accessed Jan. 29, 2022.

  3. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports. “Technical Notes: Calculating the Human Development Indices—Graphical Presentation,” Page 2. Accessed Jan. 29, 2022.

  4. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports. “Technical Notes: Calculating the Human Development Indices—Graphical Presentation,” Page 3. Accessed Jan. 29, 2022.

  5. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports. “Home Page.” Accessed Jan. 29, 2022.

  6. JSTOR. “Is the Human Development Index Redundant?,” Eastern Economic Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Winter 2005), Pages 1–5. Accessed Jan. 29, 2022.

  7. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports. “Latest Human Development Index Ranking.” Accessed Jan. 27, 2022.

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