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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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“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” — Netflix notices Africa!

by Steven Langdon

Africa is rising,  not just economically,  but also in terms of popular culture across the world.  This is evident not just in blockbuster movies like “Black Panther” but also in the rise of “Nollywood,” the burgeoning movie industry in Nigeria.

Now Netflix is catching the current.  “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is set in Malawi, stars African actors,  and conveys many of the complexities of both African education and the impact of climate change.  And now Netflix is taking these themes global,  as the following story by a Ugandan journalist recounts.

After watching the movie,  I underline many of the points made in this article.  Climate change is a core element of the plot,  and the constraints on African education emerge strongly,  particularly for the daughter who is unable to go to university despite her abilities.  Beyond these points, this is also a beautifully rendered exploration of family relationships in the context of economic pressures.


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Inequalities in Luanda, Angola, show challenges in African Megacities

by Steven Langdon


Our African Economic Development course,  and its textbook (African Economic Development by Langdon, Ritter and Samy, published in 2018 by Routledge,) focus on growing inequalities in Sub-Saharan Africa and on the rapid spread of urban conglomerates in many parts of the region.

One example of these trends can be found in the spreading city of Luanda in Angola.  Large oil revenues spurred this growth,  and decreases in oil prices have added to the pressures toward marked social inequalities.

A photo essay from the Guardian newspaper in the UK conveys the texture of these ongoing changes in dramatic fashion.  Please keep in mind that Luanda is only one of a series of expanding megacities in Africa.

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From Chapter 3, p. 197, Box 3.1 | Sub-Saharan Africa: Changes in Temperature and Precipitation Extremes,

Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced the dramatic consequences of climate extremes becoming more frequent and more intense over the past decades (Paeth et al., 2010; Taylor et al., 2017).

In order to join international efforts to reduce climate change, all African countries signed the Paris Agreement. In particular, through their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), they committed to contribute to the global effort to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with the aim to constrain global temperature increases to ‘well below 2°C’ and to pursue efforts to limit warming to ‘1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’. The target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is useful for conveying the urgency of the situation. However, it focuses the climate change debate on a temperature threshold (Section 3.3.2), while the potential impacts of these global warming levels on key sectors at local to regional scales, such as agriculture, energy and health, remain uncertain in most regions and counries of Africa (Sections 3.3.3, 3.3.4, 3.3.5 and 3.3.6).

Weber et al. (2018) found that at regional scales, temperature increases in sub-Saharan Africa are projected to be higher than the global mean temperature increase (at global warming of 1.5°C and at 2°C; see Section 3.3.2 for further background and analyses of climate model projections).

Even if the mean global temperature anomaly is kept below 1.5°C, regions between 15°S and 15°N are projected to experience an increase in hot nights, as well as longer and more frequent heatwaves (e.g., Kharin et al., 2018). Increases would be even larger if the global mean temperature were to reach 2°C of global warming, with significant changes in the occurrence and intensity of temperature extremes in all sub-Saharan regions (Sections 3.3.1 and 3.3.2; Figures 3.4, 3.5 and 3.8).

West and Central Africa are projected to display particularly large increases in the number of hot days, both at 1.5°C and 2°C of global warming (Section 3.3.2). This is due to the relatively small interannual present-day variability in this region, which implies that climate-change signals can be detected earlier there (Section 3.3.2; Mahlstein et al., 2011).

Projected changes in total precipitation exhibit uncertainties, mainly in the Sahel (Section 3.3.3 and Figure 3.8; Diedhiou et al., 2018). In the Guinea Coast and Central Africa, only a small change in total precipitation is projected, although most models (70%) indicate a decrease in the length of wet periods and a slight increase in heavy rainfall. Western Sahel is projected by most models (80%) to experience the strongest drying, with a significant increase in the maximum length of dry spells (Diedhiou et al., 2018). Above 2°C, this region could become more vulnerable to drought and could face serious food security issues (Cross-Chapter Box 6 and Section 3.4.6 in this chapter; Salem et al., 2017; Parkes et al., 2018). West Africa has thus been identified as a climate-change hotspot with negative impacts from climate change on crop yields and production (Cross-Chapter Box 6 and Section 3.4.6; Sultan and Gaetani, 2016; Palazzo et al., 2017). Despite uncertainty in projections for precipitation in West Africa, which is essential for rain-fed agriculture, robust evidence of yield loss might emerge. This yield loss is expected to be mainly driven by increased mean temperature, while potential wetter or drier conditions – as well as elevated CO2 concentrations – could modulate this effect (Roudier et al., 2011; see also Cross-Chapter Box 6 and Section 3.4.6).

Using Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP)8.5 Coordinated Regional Climate Downscaling Experiment (CORDEX) scenarios from 25 regional climate models (RCMs) forced with different general circulation models (GCMs), Klutse et al. (2018) noted a decrease in mean rainfall over West Africa in models with stronger warming for this region at 1.5°C of global warming (Section 3.3.4). Mba et al. (2018) used a similar approach and found a lack of consensus in the changes in precipitation over Central Africa (Figure 3.8 and Section 3.3.4), although there was a tendency towards a decrease in the maximum number of consecutive wet days (CWD) and a significant increase in the maximum number of consecutive dry days (CDD).Over southern Africa, models agree on a positive sign of change for temperature, with temperature rising faster at 2°C (1.5°C–2.5°C) as compared to 1.5°C (0.5°C–1.5°C) of global warming.

Areas in the south-western region, especially in South Africa and parts of Namibia and Botswana, are expected to experience the largest increases in temperature (Section 3.3.2; Engelbrecht et al., 2015; Maúre et al., 2018). The western part of southern Africa is projected to become drier with increasing drought frequency and number of heatwaves towards the end of the 21st century (Section 3.3.4; Engelbrecht et al., 2015; Dosio, 2017; Maúre et al., 2018). At 1.5°C, a robust signal of precipitation reduction is found over the Limpopo basin and smaller areas of the Zambezi basin in Zambia, as well as over parts of Western Cape in South Africa, while an increase is projected over central and western South Africa, as well as in southern Namibia (Section 3.3.4). At 2°C, the region is projected to face robust precipitation decreases of about 10–20% and increases in the number of CDD, with longer dry spells projected over Namibia, Botswana, northern Zimbabwe and southern Zambia. Conversely, the number of CWD is projected to decrease, with robust signals over Western Cape Maúre et al., 2018). Projected reductions in stream flow of 5–10% in the Zambezi River basin have been associated with increased evaporation and transpiration rates resulting from a rise in temperature ( Section 3.3.5; Kling et al., 2014), with issues for hydroelectric power across the region of southern Africa.

For Eastern Africa, Osima et al. (2018) found that annual rainfall projections show a robust increase in precipitation over Somalia and a less robust decrease over central and northern Ethiopia (Section 3.3.3). The number of CDD and CWD are projected to increase and decrease, respectively (Section 3.3.4). These projected changes could impact the agricultural and water sectors in the region (Cross-Chapter Box 6 in this chapter and Section 3.4.6).

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Climate change and agricultural adaptation in Kenya

by Steven Langdon

Analysis of global warming and climate change makes it clear that Africa will be particularly seriously affected by rising temperatures and more volatile rainfall patterns.  Present trends, suggests the most recent 2014 comprehensive review from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,) would result in average African temperature increases higher than the world level and would widen drought and flooding dangers in many parts of the continent.

The pressures on African agriculture,  the sector where most Africans make their living, will be increased by these climate changes.  At the same time, though, African agriculture is showing resilience and capacities for adaptation.

This provides hopeful signs for the African future, despite global warming and more volatile rainfall.  Individual farmers in Kenya outline in the attached set of videos the ways in which they are adapting to climate change in that country.  Note especially the changes in crops and the role of tree-planting.  These are factors that we have noted in our blog for other parts of Africa as well.

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World Bank taking wider view of poverty reduction goal

by Steven Langdon

There has been controversy for some years over the “Poverty Line” approach of the World Bank to analyzing poverty levels in poorer countries.  Some critics have argued that many items included in the basket of goods/services measured to assess income levels country-by-country are not consumed by the poor — and that poverty line changes should be based on prices of only those goods that the poor do consume.  Other critics have stressed that such public goods as basic education are left out of comparative consumption measures.

Dhiraj Sharma has now written an article for the Brookings Institute in the U.S. that reviews such critiques and explains how the World Bank has been broadening and deepening its statistical analysis of poverty reduction. (“Why the World Bank is taking a wide-angle view of poverty,” November 14, 2018,

While the Bank’s conventional approach suggests 10% of the world’s population lives below the poverty line (with particularly high levels in Sub-Saharan Africa,)  including educational and health public goods in the analysis would increase the level to over 18%, Sharma notes.  At the same time,  the Bank has been developing a measure of relative poverty — and that would suggest one third of the world’s population is poor.

As noted in a previous post,  the Bank has developed a Human Capital Index to capture educational and health conditions amongst countries and how they contribute to poorer economic prospects for children born in countries with lower Index numbers.  The 2019 World Development Report has just been issued by the Bank and outlines this analytic approach in detail.

For further information see the following:

Why the World Bank is taking a wide-angle view of poverty

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Poverty measures show worsening social inequalities in Nigeria

by Steven Langdon

There has been widespread debate and analysis about poverty in Africa, reflecting the fact that most parts of the world saw marked poverty reduction during the 2000-2015 United Nations Millennium Development Goals period but sub-Saharan Africa saw persistence of high poverty rates for large numbers of people in most countries.  Different measures of poverty have been consistent in showing this African poverty persistence,  including the World Bank Poverty Line approach and the broader Human Development Index (HDI) and its associated Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI.)

One of the countries where poverty has continued to be high,  despite its petroleum wealth,  has been Nigeria.  This has been particularly significant given that Nigeria’s population is the highest in Africa and expanding quickly.

This has made the country a particular focus of poverty research,  making use of a wide variety of measures to track social conditions besides the traditional approaches.  A new Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) Index measures three factors crucial to reducing gaps between the rich and poor — social spending, tax policies and labour rights. Nigeria ranks last out of 157 countries analyzed.

The World Bank has also launched a new indicator,  the Human Capital Index (HCI,)  suggesting the future social situations of a country’s population,  based on chances of a child reaching age five, healthy growth, expected years of schooling, quality of learning available and the adult survival rate.  Again,  Nigeria’s ranking is very low — 152nd out of 157 nations.

If Africa is to succeed in marked poverty reduction in the context of the 2015-2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) effort,  it is clear that socio-economic policy and its implementation in Nigeria must improve in a major way.  I have worked with the World Bank in Nigeria and know that the governance challenges in the country are great.  But the critical needs of millions of poorer Nigerians will have to lead to new urgency and commitment to counter poverty in the largest nation on the continent.

For more on poverty measures in Nigeria and their implications, please see the attached.

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Informal trade flows exceed official trade statistics in parts of Africa

by Steven Langdon


There are challenges to relying on official statistics in parts of Africa,  as we discuss in our recent book (African Economic Development, by Langdon, Ritter and Samy — published by Routledge in 2018.)

Recent evidence from Benin suggests these challenges may be particularly great in measuring trade flows between individual African countries,  with much trade being carried out informally by small-scale traders without being calculated numerically at border posts.  Three researchers (Jarreau, Mitaritonna and Bensassi) have undertaken a large scale survey of informal traders crossing the Benin-Nigeria border, asking them the extent of their import and export of goods — then comparing this with official trade statistics for the same 171 border points.

The results were dramatic.  Some 85% of exports were not recorded and 50% of imports.  The goods involved are not just agricultural products,  but include a diverse range,  including textiles and transportation equipment.

As the researchers conclude, “this confirms that trade statistics on the continent suffer from a serious blind spot.”  Given the importance African countries are giving to initiatives for continental free trade,  the gaps in existing trade measurement are especially problematic.  This blind spot on trade statistics also underlines the wider need to improve official statistics in other areas to contribute to better African economic policy-making.

For more details on this Benin research, please see the attached link.

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New Islamic financing becoming more important in Africa

by Steven Langdon

In our recent book (Langdon/Ritter/Samy, African Economic Development, Routledge, 2018,)  we discuss how various African countries have begun to diversify their international financial sources,  using bond issues, for instance,  so as not to depend as much on direct foreign investment.

Now further diversification is becoming evident in the form of sukuk bonds from Islamic sources.  This is lending in which interest payments are not allowed,  with agreed levels of profit sharing from project results.  Over US$2.3 billion in such financing has taken place in Africa since 2014,  with the Ivory Coast and South Africa as the largest recipients (and Muslim Asian and Gulf States countries as the main source of the funds.)

It is important for Africa to broaden it’s sources of capital for development,  so this trend is a significant plus — as the World Bank and other international agencies have recognized.  For more details,  see the attached link.

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Greening of arid Africa: an update on “gao” trees

by Steven Langdon

Farmers in Niger and other parts of arid Africa are making their own “green revolution” — by expanding the cultivation of “gao” trees, also known as “winter thorn.”  Faced with drought and high prices for fertilizer,  farmers have grown over 200 million “gao” trees in Niger,  providing nutrition to the soil and retaining water from the scarce rainfall.

We provide a detailed discussion of this remarkable success in the agriculture chapter of our new book, “African Economic Development,”  published this year by Routledge.  Now the Guardian newspaper in the UK has published an update on recent developments,  along with illustrations of “gao” trees and their output.  The article emphasizes as well the contribution of the trees to countering climate change pressures.

Please see the attached article:


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