Can you tally up world progress?

The UN’s latest index on human development reveals ‘impressive’ results in well-being. But it also suggests that immeasurable qualities are necessary for progress.

A woman casts her ballot during a parliamentary election in the village of Zhukov Lug, Belarus, last September.

When the cold war ended a quarter century ago, and with it the division of the world into two “camps,” the United Nations decided to start measuring the progress of humanity as a whole. Thus was born the Human Development Index, a gauge that looks beyond mere economic growth and tries to tally up changes in quality of life, or “well-being.”

Twenty-five years later, the UN is still looking for the qualities that can make a difference.

In its latest development index for 188 countries, the UN notes “impressive” progress in very tangible categories from 1990 to 2015. More than 1 billion people have escaped poverty. People live longer, more children go to school, and more people have access to basic services such as clean water. The proportion of women in legislatures is now 23 percent. More than 50 nations have improved access to official information. And the rate of deforestation has been felled by half.

And all this happened even as global population has increased by 2 billion. “Over the last decades, we have witnessed achievements in human development that were once thought impossible,” says Selim Jahan, author of the UN Development Report.

Other indices have since been invented to try to capture the nonmaterial aspects of progress, such as the National Happiness Index, the Global Innovation Index, the Social Progress Index, the Global Peace Index, and the Inclusive Development Index as well as a ranking of nations by political freedom. The hope behind such alternative indicators is that an attempt to measure something might help reveal what causes it or could push it along.

Yet not everything that can be reduced to a number has lasting value. And this year’s UN report acknowledges the importance of intangible aspects of progress other than physical or social well-being. These include each person’s “voice” in shaping a community or the autonomy to make choices that open up opportunities.

The report thus highlights “agency,” or the freedom of both individuals and groups to enhance their potential: “People have the liberty of choosing their identities, an important liberty to recognize, value and defend.” Many countries, the report notes, have improved their well-being but not their agency.

Each different index on progress has also helped bring progress on one aspect of agency. Despite all the world’s challenges (1 in 9 people, for example, is still hungry), humanity has achieved the “hope that fundamental changes are possible,” the UN report states. And this has created a nascent global consensus to ensure a sustainable world for future generations.

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