What Is the 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 since 1990 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.
  • It was introduced by the U.N. in 1990.
  • The HDI was created to emphasize that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone.
  • 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.

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 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 both 15 mean years of schooling and 18 years of expected schooling equal 1, and a simple mean of the two is calculated.
  • The economic 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.

Switzerland scores the highest among 191 nations in the most recent HDI rankings from the U.N.

HDI Rankings

Top HDI scores go heavily to Northern European countries, while the lowest-scoring nations are largely found on the African continent.

The top 25 countries by the latest HDI rankings (as of 2022) include:

Top 25 HDI Rankings
 Rank Country HDI Score
1 Switzerland 0.962
2 Norway 0.961
3 Iceland 0.959
4 Hong Kong 0.952
5 Australia 0.951
6 Denmark 0.948
7 Sweden 0.947
8 Ireland 0.945
9 Germany 0.942
10 Netherlands 0.941
11 Finland 0.940
12 Singapore 0.939
13 Belgium 0.937
14 New Zealand 0.937
15 Canada 0.936
16 Liechtenstein 0.935
17 Luxembourg 0.930
18 United Kingdom 0.929
19 Japan 0.925
20 South Korea 0.925
21 United States 0.921
22 Israel 0.919
23 Malta 0.918
24 Slovenia 0.918
25 Austria 0.916

The bottom 5 countries were:

Bottom 5 HDI Rankings
 Rank Country HDI Score
 187 Burundi 0.426
 188 Central African Republic 0.404
 189 Niger 0.400
 190  Chad 0.394
 191 South Sudan 0.385

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 Indicators Used in 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 2022, Switzerland finished first with an HDI value of 0.962. Norway, Iceland, Hong Kong, and Australia rounded out the top five. Meanwhile, the United States was ranked just 21st with an HDI value of 0.921.

The Bottom Line

The United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI) seeks to quantify a country's level of prosperity based on both economic and non-economic factors. Non-economic factors include life expectancy, and educational attainment. Economic factors are measured by gross national income (GNI) per-capita. While the U.N. argues that the HDI improves our understanding of relative well-being around the world, economists have criticized the index as overly simplistic and flawed in its methodology.

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  1. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports. “Human Development Index (HDI).”

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

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

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

  5. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports. “Latest Human Development Index Ranking.”

  6. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Reports. “Home Page.”

  7. Cahill, Miles. “Is the Human Development Index Redundant?,” Eastern Economic Journal, vol. 31, no. 1, Winter 2005, Pages 1–5.

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