Rich countries attain record human development, but half of the poorest have gone backwards, finds UN Development Programme

Rising political polarization and distrust results in gridlock on global challenges

March 13, 2024

Vientiane, 13 March 2024 – Uneven development progress is leaving the poorest behind, exacerbating inequality, and stoking political polarization on a global scale. The result is a dangerous gridlock that must be urgently tackled through collective action, according to a new report released today by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

The 2023/24 Human Development Report (HDR), titled “Breaking the Gridlock: Reimagining cooperation in a polarized world", reveals a troubling trend: the rebound in the global Human Development Index (HDI) – a summary measure reflecting a country’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, education, and life expectancy – has been partial, incomplete, and unequal. 

The HDI is projected to reach record highs in 2023 after steep declines during 2020 and 2021. But this progress is deeply uneven. Rich countries are experiencing record-high levels of human development while half of the world’s poorest countries remain below their pre-crisis level of progress. 

Following an unprecedented dip due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic turmoil, the HDI in Asia and the Pacific rebounded to pre-pandemic values in 2022, but this should not be interpreted as a complete recovery. The latest HDI value remains well below what it could have been if there had not been a crisis. In this sense, the pandemic period has produced lasting consequences. Fourteen countries are still below the 2019 level and some countries like Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, and Samoa are seeing a worrying regression in HDI. 

East Asia managed to minimize the disruptions of the pandemic, and the HDI data reveals that this subregion barely registered a blip. Other subregions saw marked volatility. In 2022, South Asia bounced back significantly, surpassing pre-pandemic levels. South-East Asia remains below the HDI level before the pandemic. While the Pacific rebounded above 2019 values, health and education remain critical concerns. Viewed over a longer period, Asia-Pacific continues to stand out as the region with the most rapid progress in human development. Between 1990 and 2022, the HDI increased by 20 percentage points – the highest increase in the world.  

The 2024 Global Human Development Report provides an opportunity to look at the economic growth and human development landscape in Lao PDR. The report shows that the HDI value for Lao PDR reached 0.620 reversing the earlier losses of the index from the pandemic years 2020/21. The new HDI places Lao PDR in the medium human development classification – ranking the country 139th out of 193 countries and territories.  

Despite the advances, the HDI for Lao PDR, at 0.620, trails behind average Human Development Index for the region of 0.72. The report also shows that inequality is estimated to contribute to a 24.8 percent loss in human development in the country. As the country prepares for graduation from Least Developed Country (LDC) status, gender disparities, rising inequality particularly between its urban and rural regions, and the failure to adapt to climate change could put a future transition strategy at risk.   

On gender equality, Lao PDR has gradually climbed up in HDI Gender Development Index (GDI) since 1995 and is on a trajectory towards global convergence. Enhancing social sector funding and policy frameworks to empower women will positively influence education, workforce involvement, and political engagement. This will provide the additional impetus needed to sustain the positive momentum the country has already achieved over the last three decades.  

The report also finds that the wealth gap between rich and poor nations is growing globally. For the Asia Pacific region, the gap in HDI values between the best and worst performers widened in 2022.  Almost 40 percent of global trade in goods is concentrated in three or fewer countries; and in 2021 the market capitalization of each of the three largest tech companies in the world surpassed the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of more than 90 percent of countries that year. The widening human development gap revealed by the report shows that the two-decade trend of steadily reducing inequalities between wealthy and poor nations is now in reverse. As Lao PDR prepares for graduation from LDC status, increasing public investments in human and technological capacities is essential. Such investments would enable the country to adopt a low-carbon, high-skill intensity approach, which is crucial for economic diversification and competitiveness in the new global trade landscape. 

“Despite our deeply interconnected global societies, we are falling short. We must leverage our interdependence as well as our capacities to address our shared and existential challenges and ensure people’s aspirations are met,” said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Development Programme. “This gridlock carries a significant human toll. The failure of collective action to advance action on climate change, digitalization or poverty and inequality not only hinders human development but also worsens polarization and further erodes trust in people and institutions worldwide.” 

The report highlights that deglobalization is neither feasible nor realistic in today’s world and that economic interdependence remains high. It points out that no region is close to self-sufficiency, as all rely on imports from other regions of 25 percent or more of at least one major type of goods and services. "In a world marked by increasing polarization and division, neglecting to invest in each other poses a serious threat to our wellbeing and security. Protectionist approaches cannot address the complex, interconnected challenges we face, including pandemic prevention, climate change, and digital regulation,” Steiner added. “Our problems are intertwined, requiring equally interconnected solutions. By adopting an opportunity-driven agenda that emphasizes the benefits of the energy transition and of artificial intelligence for human development, we have a chance to break through the current deadlock and reignite a commitment to a shared future." 

The report emphasizes how global interdependence is being reconfigured and calls for a new generation of global public goods. It proposes four areas for immediate action: 

  • planetary public goods, for climate stability, as we confront the unprecedented challenges of the Anthropocene. 

  • digital global public goods, for greater equity in harnessing new technologies for equitable human development. 

  • new and expanded financial mechanisms, including a novel track in international cooperation that complements humanitarian assistance and traditional development aid to low-income countries; and 

  • dialing down political polarization through new governance approaches focused on enhancing people's voices in deliberation and tackling misinformation.   

In this context, multilateralism plays a fundamental role, the report argues, because bilateral engagements are not able to address the irreducibly planetary nature of the provision of global public goods.  

The report comes at a strategic time for Lao PDR as the country assumes the ASEAN chairmanship for the year 2024 with an agenda to promote connectivity and resilience as two strategic pillars of development. For Lao PDR, this involves promoting digital and physical connectivity to transform from a landlocked to a land-linked country, and fostering inclusive socio-economic development while protecting longer-term environmental prospects. 

Lao PDR is at a critical inflexion point where the country is experiencing structural transitions, including rapid urbanization, internal and cross-border migration, and a demographic transition with great potential to reap the demographic dividend in the years to come. The Government has recently completed the mid-term review of its 9th National Socio-Economic Development Plan (NSEDP), which includes recommendations for the remaining period of the planning cycle while identifying strategic priorities for the 10th NSEDP.  The successful macroeconomic stabilization, robust planning systems and reaping benefits of demographic dividend will be critical for putting the country on a robust development pathway post-LDC graduation. 

At this critical juncture for Lao PDR, UNDP is supporting the ongoing reflections on the priorities for the 10th NSEDP through a series of dialogues with a wide range of stakeholders aimed at helping decision makers to navigate development challenges and design indigenous solutions to accelerate progress and put the country on a path to resilience and sustainability.  

As part of this dialogue series, UNDP, in collaboration with the Ministry of Planning and Investment, will launch of the 2023/24 Global Human Development Report on 29 March in Lao PDR. The event, which will take place from 8.00 am to 11.00 am at the University of Laos in Vientiane, will include a muti-stakeholder panel discussion on the key findings of the Report and their relevance to Lao PDR.    


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About UNDP 

UNDP is the leading United Nations organization fighting to end the injustice of poverty, inequality, and climate change. Working with our broad network of experts and partners in 170 countries, we help nations to build integrated, lasting solutions for people and the planet. Learn more at or follow at @UNDP. 

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The mission of the Human Development Report Office (HDRO) is to advance human development. The goal is to contribute towards the expansion of opportunities, choice, and freedom. The office works towards this goal by promoting innovative new ideas, advocating practical policy changes, and constructively challenging policies and approaches that constrain human development. The office works with others to achieve change through writing and research, data analysis and presentation, support to national and regional analysis and outreach and advocacy work.