With a score of 0.962 out of 1.000, Switzerland topped the United Nation’s latest Human Development Index for 2021, a measure that includes life expectancy, education and income. The index, designed to look beyond GDP as a measure of well-being, was launched in 1990.
Published on 8 September 2022, the latest report on 2021 reveals how inequalities and uncertainty are reinforcing one another to drive polarisation across the world. It also shows that decades of progress on life expectancy, education and economic prosperity have begun to unravel since the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, around 90% of nations have slid backwards.
This year, Switzerland came top of the index with a life expectancy of 84 years, an average of 16.5 years spent in education and a median salary of US$66,000. South Sudan was at the other end of the scale with a life expectancy at birth of 55, 5.5 years in school and average income of just US$768 a year.
Across the world life expectancy was lower due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The latest figures show life expectancy slipping back to where it was in 2016 reversing a 30-year upward trend. For example, in the US where an estimated 1.2 million people have died of Covid-19 (excess deaths), life expectancy at birth has declined by 1.9 years since 2019, dipping 1.7 years in 2020 and a further 0.2 years in 2021. In Switzerland, life expectancy is up by 0.2 years compared to 2019 after dipping by 0.7 years in 2020.
Between 1990, when the index was first published, and 2019, the overall global index rose from 0.601 to 0.739 (+23%), rising every year. Between 2019 and 2021 it fell to 0.732 (-1%).
Between 1990 and 2021, Switzerland’s HDI value rose from 0.851 to 0.962, a jump of 13%. Life expectancy at birth rose by 6.6 years, mean years of schooling jumped 3.3 years and GNI per capita rose 13.2%. The impact of the pandemic set back Switzerland’s HDI in 2020. However, in 2021 it bounced back, rising by 0.006, the same amount it fell by in 2020.
Switzerland also scored well on complementary HDI indices. On the gender development index it scored 0.967 in 2021. While Swiss men get a bit more education (14.2 vs 13.5 years) and earn more (US$79,451 vs US$54,597) they live 3.9 fewer years than women. On HDI inequality Switzerland scored 0.894 in 2021 – inequality in life expectancy was 3.1%, inequality on education 2% and income inequality 15.6%. These same measures in the US were 5.9% (life expectancy), 2.7% (education) and 23.2% (income). The US scored 0.819 overall on HDI inequality.
The report highlights how most top scorers bounced back in 2021 while most nearer the bottom have continued to decline. Achim Steiner, one of report’s authors, described the outlook for 2022 as grim for many nations near the bottom. More than 80 countries are facing problems paying off national debt. We are seeing deep disruptions, the tail end of which will play out over a number of years, said Steiner.
One theme covered in this year’s report is polarisation. Political and social polarisation have intensified across and within countries, said the authors. Steady increases in concerns and uncertainty since 2012, well before the Covid-19 outbreak, are pushing up feelings of distress nearly everywhere. This is evidenced in the rise in publications containing negative views. The steepest rise is among publications in German. Levels of trust are also in steep decline. Globally, fewer than 30% of people think that most people can be trusted, the lowest value on record.
Why such negative views coexist with with high HDIs is difficult to explain. One possibility outlined in the report is perception and feelings of uncertainty. Losing perceived control rather than simply not having it in the first place has its own negative consequences. It also comes with a tendency to identify culprits or villains, a distrust of institutions and elites, and greater insularity, nationalism and social discord. Polarisation can take dangerous forms when different groups operate with entirely different sets of facts and, thus, realities, especially when those realities are bound up with group identities. Powerful new media technologies magnify the impact further.
UN report (in English)