Overlapping crises set back global development in 9 out of 10 countries, UN says

Climate-related disasters, such as the recent devastating floods in Pakistan, are one of a number of crises setting back human development. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Waqar Hussein)

Back-to-back crises have set back human development for two consecutive years for the first time on record, the United Nations said on Thursday.

Overlapping catastrophes during the past two years including the Covid-19 pandemic, a rise in armed conflict and natural disasters fuelled by climate change have reversed human development around the world, a new report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has revealed. 

The Human Development Index (HDI), which measures a nation’s health, education and standard of living, has declined for two years in a row for the first time in the 32 years, when the UNDP records began, and now stands at 2016 levels. 

Over 90 per cent of countries registered a decline in human development in 2020 or 2021, the report reveals, while 40 per cent saw a decline in both years.

During the “last devastating global moment of crisis” – the financial crisis of 2008 – only one in 10 countries faced a decline in human development, UNDP administrator Achim Steiner noted.

“We are living through very distressing times,” said Steiner. “Whether it is a world under water, whether it is a world with no water. Whether it is a world on fire. Whether it is a world at war or whether it is a world in the midst of a pandemic.

“These are times in which transformation is the only way in which we can come out of these crises.” 

Economic recessions and a dramatic drop in life expectancy rates reversed progress in developed and developing countries alike. In 2020, 85 per cent of countries experienced a decline in income per capita while 70 per cent of countries and territories faced a decline in life expectancy. 

While there was significant economic recovery in 2021, life expectancy rates continued to drop in two thirds of countries. In the United States alone, life expectancy estimates have plummeted by over two years to their lowest levels since 1996, according to government figures published last week.

Uneven recoveries. While the impact of the consecutive crises of the past two years has been almost universal, the report shows that recovery has been uneven, further widening existing development inequalities.

Although many wealthier countries began to get back on their feet in 2021, the recovery of many of the hardest hit regions such as Latin America, the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia has been staggered by persistent climate-related disasters and stalled economic growth. 

Divisions between richer and poorer countries have also widened in access to healthcare, including Covid-19 vaccinations. As of July 2022, just over 20 per cent of people were vaccinated with at least one dose in low income countries compared to over 70 per cent in high income countries. 

Gender inequality has also deepened across the world, with women and girls shouldering more household and caregiving responsibilities while violence against them has worsened. Gaps in access to education have also widened, partly driven by the digital divide which risks leaving a generation of learners behind, the UNDP said.  

Crises take a toll on mental health. The back-to-back crises have had a dramatic impact on people’s mental health, the report shows. Figures released by the UNDP earlier this year revealed six out of seven people felt insecure about many aspects of their lives even before the Covid-19 pandemic, while the latest data shows that one third of people worldwide report feeling stressed and fewer than one third trust others. 

“Even before Covid-19 hit, we were seeing the twin paradoxes of progress with insecurity and polarisation,” the UNDP’s Steiner said in a press conference. “Today, with one-third of people worldwide feeling stressed and fewer than a third of people worldwide trusting others, we face major roadblocks to adopting policies that work for people and planet.”

“What people are saying is that their lives are being unsettled,” added Pedro Conceição, the report’s lead author. “They are unsettled by poverty. They are unsettled by anger, by inflation, by hunger. They are unsettled by violent conflict, which was affecting 1.2 billion people even before the war in Ukraine.

“Unsettledness is often leading to mental distress, with declines in mental health around the world. So no wonder that people are feeling insecure.”

Financial squeeze holds back development. Meanwhile, Steiner noted there had been a cut back in development finance, with many wealthier countries cutting vital humanitarian funding since the pandemic. 

“The wealthiest nations, those most able to step forward in a moment of extreme need and actually help countries that are in an extremely difficult situation. We are not seeing that happen,” said Steiner. “That further erodes trust in one another.”

The UNDP said insecurity and polarisation – both within communities and countries – was preventing the solidarity needed to tackle major challenges such as climate change. 

“The world is scrambling to respond to back-to-back crises,” said Steiner. “We have seen with the cost of living and energy crises that, while it is tempting to focus on quick fixes like subsidising fossil fuels, immediate relief tactics are delaying the long-term systemic changes we must make.”

“We are collectively paralysed in making these changes. In a world defined by uncertainty, we need a renewed sense of global solidarity to tackle our interconnected, common challenges.”

The UN agency called on countries to implement policies that focus on investment, from renewable energy to pandemic preparedness, and insurance such as social protection to support the most vulnerable in societies. It also called for innovation in all sectors – from technology to the economy – to help ready the world for future challenges. 

“So many of the problems that we have – pandemics, biodiversity, the climate crisis – are truly global, and there is no way individual countries can solve them unless we work together,” said the UNDP’s Ulrika Modéer told Geneva Solutions. “At the end of the day there is no other way than to invest in multilateral solutions.”