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UN: We have a narrow window of opportunity to create a better future for everyone

Human development has fallen back to its 2016 levels, reversing much of the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Human development has fallen back to its 2016 levels, reversing much of the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Image: Pexels/ Edward Jenner

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  • The 2021/22 Human Development Report paints a picture of a global society lurching from crisis to crisis, which risks heading towards increasing deprivation and injustice.
  • Human development has fallen back to its 2016 levels, reversing much of the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • According to UNDP Administrator Mr. Steiner, the analysis contained within the report can help to chart a new course out of the current global uncertainty.

The 2021/22 Human Development Report (HDR) – which is entitled “Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World” – paints a picture of a global society lurching from crisis to crisis, and which risks heading towards increasing deprivation and injustice.

Heading the list of events causing major global disruption are the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which have come on top of sweeping social and economic shifts, dangerous planetary changes, and massive increases in polarization.

human development report 2021/2022
A snapshot of the Human Development Report. Image: United Nations.

1) First back-to-back decline in three decades

For the first time in the 32 years that the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has been calculating it, the Human Development Index, which measures a nation’s health, education, and standard of living, has declined globally for two years in a row.

This signals a deepening crisis for many regions, and Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia have been hit particularly hard.

Human development has fallen back to its 2016 levels, reversing much of the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals which make up the 2030 Agenda, the UN’s blueprint for a fairer future for people and the planet.

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

Mr. Steiner went on to call for a renewed sense of global solidarity to tackle “interconnected, common challenges”, but acknowledged that the international community is currently “paralyzed in making these changes”.

The study points to insecurity and polarization of views hampering efforts to bring about the solidarity that is needed to tackle the big global challenges, with data suggesting that those who are most insecure are more likely to hold extremist views. This phenomenon was observed even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

2) COVID-19 is ‘a window into a new reality’

Now into its third year, the pandemic is described in the report as “a window into a new reality”, rather than a detour from business as usual.

The development of effective vaccines is hailed as a monumental achievement, credited with saving around 20 million lives, and a demonstration of the huge power of innovation married to political will.

At the same time, the rollout of the vaccines laid bare the huge inequities of the global economy. Access has been paltry in many low-income countries, and women and girls have suffered the most, shouldering more household and caregiving responsibilities, and facing increased violence.

Flooding Pakistan navigate uncertainty human development UNDP Pedro Conceição
To navigate uncertainty, we need to double down on human development and look beyond improving people’s wealth or health,” says UNDP’s Pedro Conceição Image: United Nations.

3) We’re living through a new ‘uncertainty complex’

The successive waves of new COVID-19 variants, and warnings that future pandemics are increasingly likely, have helped to compound a generalized atmosphere of uncertainty that was growing in response to the dizzying pace of technological change, its effect on the workplace, and steadily growing fears surrounding the climate crisis.

The study’s authors warn that the global upheaval of the pandemic is nothing compared to what the world would experience if a collapse in biodiversity were to occur, and societies found themselves having to solve the challenge of growing food at scale, without insect pollinators. “For the first time in human history”, the report declares, “anthropogenic [man-made] existential threats loom larger than those from natural hazards”.

Three layers of today’s “uncertainty complex” are identified: dangerous planetary change, the transition to new ways of organizing industrial societies, and the intensification of political and social polarization.

“It is not just that typhoons are getting bigger and deadlier through human impact on the environment” says the report. “It is also as if, through our social choices, their destructive paths are being directed at the most vulnerable among us”.

human development artificial intelligence applications
Although there are many well-founded fears surrounding the growing use of Artificial Intelligence, there are many demonstrable upsides to the technology for human development aspects. Image: United Nations.

4) There is opportunity in uncertainty

Whilst change is inevitable, the ways in which we react are not. Although there are many well-founded fears surrounding the growing use of Artificial Intelligence, there are many demonstrable upsides to the technology, which is, amongst other things, helping to model the impacts of climate change, improve individualized learning, and help in the development of medicines.

One upshot to the post-COVID world is the creation of novel mRNA vaccine technology, which promises a breakthrough in the way that other diseases are treated.

The pandemic has also normalized paid sick leave, voluntary social distancing and self-isolation, all important for our response to future pandemics.

human development solar lamp
Solar lamps are a clean, cost-effective way to bring lighting to those with no access to electricity. Image: United Nations.

5) We can chart a new course

The last three years could serve to show what we are capable of, when we move beyond conventional ways of doing things, and lead us to transform our institutions so that they are better suited to today’s world.

According to Mr. Steiner, the analysis contained within the report can help to chart a new course out of the current global uncertainty.

“We have a narrow window to re-boot our systems and secure a future built on decisive climate action and new opportunities for all,” said the development chief.

This new direction involves implementing policies that focus on investment, from renewable energy to preparedness for pandemics; insurance, including social protection, to prepare our societies for the ups and downs of an uncertain world; and innovation that helps countries to better respond to whatever challenges come next.

“To navigate uncertainty, we need to double down on human development and look beyond improving people’s wealth or health,” says UNDP’s Pedro Conceição, the report’s lead author. “These remain important. But we also need to protect the planet and provide people with the tools they need to feel more secure, regain a sense of control over their lives and have hope for the future.”

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