Measuring a Nation’s Wealth Through its People

By Nkiru Uzodi*

On the morning of Thursday, November 4, I got to the UN Headquarters in New York after braving the heavy rain and fierce wind that almost blew me and my umbrella off East 42nd Street (and of course, after some serious security screening). But it was all worth it. My first time at the UN, I was excited to listen to UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who helped devise the Human Development Index for the first Human Development Report (HDR) in 1990. We were gathered this stormy morning to celebrate the launch of the 20th Anniversary Edition of the United Nations Human Development Report (HDR).

The Secretary General reaffirmed the report’s message of the past 20 years: people are the true measure of a nation’s wealth. Growth, he said, should not just be measured by what a country earns or the resources it owns, but also by how well its people live. He advised governments to focus on the quality of growth and not just the quantity.

According to Jeni Klugman, Director of the Human Development Report Office and lead author of the report, the HDR lays out the path to human development, focusing on equity, empowerment and sustainability. During the event, she ran a video showing people from different parts of the world telling stories of how much their lives have improved in recent times. Helen Clark, the UNDP Administrator shared findings from the report that people are wealthier, healthier and more educated than before. I question whether everyone would agree with this premise—that the world is a much better place to live in today than it was four decades ago, considering the aftermath of the economic recession, the growing threat of religious extremism, political instability and inequality in different parts of the world. These are harsh realities for some of the world’s population.

As the presenters shared charts on the progress of different countries over the years, it became evident that economic growth alone does not necessarily translate into important social gains. For instance, high income growth was not always correlated with progress in gender equality. I agree with Ms. Klugman that “putting people at the center is more important than intellectual research.” It is my hope that over the next twenty years, we will see a switch in emphasis so that human development truly means progress for all. And that the UN and its member states invest in their people, ensuring that no one is left behind in so-called “progress.”

*Nkiru Uzodi is a Research and Programs Intern with the National Council for Research on Women.

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