Posted in Reports & Indices

HDR 2015: Work and Development

The UNDP’s Human Development Report 2015, looks at Work for Human Development. It points out that ‘work’ covers much more than a job and includes unpaid care work, voluntary work, or creative work. In this sense, work adds to the richness of human lives and has a synergistic relation with Human Development:

Work & HD Synergy HDR2015

The HDR 2015 points out that since 1990, the world has made major strides in human development, and the number of people living in low human development fell from 3 billion in 1990 to slightly more than 1 billion in 2014. “Today, people are living longer, more children are going to school and more people have access to clean water and basic sanitation. This progress goes hand in hand with rising incomes, producing the highest standards of living in human history. A digital revolution now connects people across societies and countries. Just as important, political developments are enabling more people than ever to live under democratic regimes. All are important facets of human development.”

The Report explains how work in various forms by 7.3 billion people has contributed to this progress:

  • Nearly a billion people who work in agriculture and more than 500 million family farms produce more than 80% of world food supplies, improving nutrition and health
  • Worldwide, 80 million workers in health and education have enhanced human capabilities
  • More than a billion workers in services have contributed to human progress
  • More than 450 million entrepreneurs are contributing to human innovation and creativity
  • Some 53 million paid domestic workers are addressing the care needs of people
  • Care work for children is preparing them for the future
  • Work that involves caring for older people, or people with disabilities, is helping them maintain their capabilities
  • Work by artists, musicians and writers is enriching human lives
  • More than 970 million people who engage in volunteer activity each year are helping families and communities, building social networks and contributing to social cohesion

Yet human progress has been uneven, human deprivations are still widespread and much human potential remains unused. Worldwide 795 million people suffer from chronic hunger, 11 children under age 5 die every minute and 33 mothers die every hour. About 37 million people live with HIV and 11 million with tuberculosis. More than 660 million people use an unimproved source of drinking water, 2.4 billion people use an unimproved sanitation facility and nearly a billion people resort to open defecation. Worldwide, 780 million adults and 103 million young people (ages 15–24) are illiterate. In developed countries 160 million people are functionally illiterate. Globally 250 million children have not learned basic skills – even though 130 million of them have spent at least four years in school.

According to the Report, the biggest deprivation in society today is the non-utilisation or underutilisation or misuse of human potential and capabilities. In 2015, 204 million people were out of work, including 74 million young people. About 830 million people in the world are working poor (living on less than $2 a day) and more than 1.5 billion are in vulnerable employment, usually lacking decent working conditions and adequate voice and social security.

The Report cautions that not all work can enhance human development, and some work actually damages it. For example, if the work is hazardous, where workplace violence is common, where women workers face harassment and abuse, where forced and child labour is tolerated, then work can hardly be said to contribute to either the quality of life or human development. In 2009, some 30 million EU workers experienced work-related violence, such as harassment, intimidation, bullying or physical violence – 10 million in the workplace and 20 million outside it! Obviously, such data is not recorded in other regions where work conditions are known to be much worse.

The world has around 168 million child labourers, almost 11 percent of the child population, some 100 million boys and 68 million girls. Around half are engaged in hazardous work. Similarly, in 2012 about 21 million people worldwide were in forced labour, trafficked for labour and sexual exploitation or held in slavery-like conditions. Forced labour is thought to generate around $150 billion a year in illegal profits. After arms and drug trafficking, human trafficking is the most lucrative illicit business worldwide. Between 2007 and 2010 trafficked victims of 136 nationalities were detected in 118 countries, 55–60 percent of them women. Paid domestic work is an important means of income for millions of workers, the majority being women; but exploitation and abuse are rife in this sector.

The following infographic illustrates well just how work can either enhance or diminish human development:

Global picture of Work HDR2015

I have quoted at such length from the Report, because I see how little attention is paid to the human development and sustainability aspects of work in all developing countries, while economists remain wholly obsessed with the number of jobs ‘created’ by a government in this quarter or that financial year. In reality, this age of digital technology and global trade has set new challenges: there has never been a worse time to be a worker with only ordinary skills and abilities. A more holistic and societal approach to enhancing the quality of all work (of which paid jobs are a mere subset) is needed, if our countries are not to become more unequal and divided – with pockets of wealth glittering among deprivation and despair.

The Report lists possible measures for a country to take to move towards sustainable work, and it is interesting to see how far the actual policies of a Government (such as India) diverge from the desirable:

  • Identify appropriate technologies and investment options, including leapfrogging opportunities. An interesting example is the spread of mobile telephony throughout Asia and Africa, where the landline networks were practically non-existent.
  • Set up regulatory and macroeconomic frameworks to facilitate adoption of sustainable policies. On the contrary, infrastructure and industrial projects are being cleared with such haste in India, that sustainability and the environment are getting chucked out of the window
  • Ensure that the population has the appropriate skills base combining technical and high-quality skills with core abilities for learning, employability and communicating. India with its highly stratified society has always shown a hint of elitism in its education policies – with world class institutions for ‘people like us’ and virtually nothing for ‘them’. This elitism is now being increasingly challenged and is the major cause for the growing unrest on Indian campuses.
  • Retrain and upgrade the skills of large numbers of workers in informal sectors, such as agriculture. As long as the farmers provide India with food self-sufficiency, who cares about upgrading their skills? Ironically, when sons of farmers graduate from a good Agricultural University in Maharashtra, their one aspiration is to pass the State or Union Public Service Exam and become a bureaucrat. So much for education…
  • Manage the adverse impacts of the transition by offering diversified packages of support and levelling the playing field to break the transmission of intergenerational inequality. No one has even noticed this impact of transition (creeping urbanization being an example), let alone frame a policy to deal with it…
  • Continue to build the skill base of the population. This will require a lifecycle approach that recognizes the cumulative nature of interventions that lead to learning. Large investments in the number and quality of health and education workers will be necessary, underscoring the continuing role of the public sector in transforming skills. Again, the desired investment in health and education is simply not happening. 

So perhaps it is time for the Indian PM to pay greater heed to Nobel Laureates like Amartya Sen and Kailash Satyarthi… and put his US-educated experts back in the multinational consultancy firms where they belong. Or watch the winds of unrest grow into a whirlwind…



I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

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