The Human Development Index — A Review by Frances Stewart

by Steven Langdon


One of the most important initiatives in development economics in the last 40 years has been the rejection of economic growth rates as the central focus in understanding and overcoming the high poverty levels in many poorer countries of the world,  from Asia to Latin America to Africa (the continent which now has greater poverty rates than anywhere.)

In the article below, Professor Frances Stewart from Oxford University outlines the process by which this change in perspective took place,  then evaluates the Human Development Index that has emerged as one of the key concepts replacing the focus on economic growth rates.  The HDI incorporates health and education factors into measurements of development,  based around the notion of achieving the human capacity for choice.

As well as analyzing the HDI’s components,  Stewart’s article considers the varied experiences of different groups of countries over the past 25 years.  Some have stayed caught in a vicious circle where poorer HDI levels have contributed to poorer economic growth records — that have in turn contributed to poorer HDI levels.  Others have seen a continuing virtuous cycle of better HDI achievements helping shape better economic growth and in turn ongoing HDI improvement.  The most interesting part of the article is Stewart’s analysis of why these continuing differences exist.

The final part of the review considers what areas the HDI misses in its various approaches.   The most important of these, she says, is the lack of attention to environmental pressures — especially given the increases in global warming and their impact on human lives.

The Human Development Approach: An Overview

Frances Stewart

Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK


The human development (HD) approach puts the improvement of people’s

lives as the central objective of development. This paper provides

an overview of major aspects of the approach. It shows how it emerged

with the evolution of development thought and a widening of development

objectives The paper explores the two-way relationship between

HD and the rival objective, economic growth, is explored and broad

characteristics of countries that have been exceptionally successful or

unsuccessful , countries with three country cases considered in greater

depth. The paper identifies major dimensions of HD, beyond the three

elements included in the Human Development Index (HDI) and shows

they are poorly captured by the HDI. An overview of global change on

HD dimensions from 1980 to 2015 gives a mixed picture with progress

on basic HD, uneven trends in some areas, and notable worsening on the

environmental dimension. In conclusion, the paper discusses some outstanding

issues which need more attention.


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