Many countries are bouncing back from the pandemic but the poorest are not, according to the latest United Nations Development Programme’s Global Human Development Report 2023-24

April 15, 2024

It's been thirty-four years since the inaugural Human Development Report was unveiled in 1990, marking a substantial evolution in our global landscape. We are now facing pronounced crises across ecological, health, political, and economic domains. Indeed, these are not ordinary times. However, they present a unique chance to reaffirm the significance of enhancing human freedom and choice in our developmental journey. This moment prompts us to reconsider our approaches to address today's pressing challenges. This is where the Human Development Report Office at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) steps in as a pivotal advocate for human progress and the implementation of policies fostering human development. The foundational belief of the human development approach — viewing progress through the lens of expanding individuals' choices and well-being — remains as pertinent now as it was when Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen first introduced this concept 34 years ago.


On 13th March 2024, the UNDP launched the 2023-24 edition of its annual Human Development Report (HDR).[1] The report, titled “Breaking the gridlock: Reimagining cooperation in a polarized world”, shows that while some countries are recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, the world's poorest countries are experiencing worsening conditions. The Report highlights a growing disparity in development, marking a shift from the previous two decades of narrowing development gaps between affluent and impoverished countries.


The report notes that while the Human Development Index (HDI)[2] is set to hit record highs in 2023, the progress in half of the globe's poorest countries has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels of 2019. It emphasizes the increasing division between rich and poor, pointing to the unequal distribution of economic wealth, with significant trade and technological wealth concentrated in a few countries.


The report calls for global unity to address key 21st-century challenges like climate change and technological advancements, warning against the rise of populism and a "democracy paradox" where support for democracy coexists with a willingness to endorse leaders who may undermine democratic principles. The report stresses the importance of collaboration over confrontation in addressing global issues, highlighting that military solutions are ineffective against challenges like climate change and pandemics.


The report advocates for increased investment in global public goods to promote equitable development, improve the global financial system to assist low-income countries. It calls for using technology to boost human development and for institutions that are people-centered and co-owned. 


It also presents the latest HDI rankings, with Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland at the top, while countries like Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso are at the bottom, mostly African nations, underscoring the global inequality in human development.


South Africa's HDI value for 2022 is 0,717— which put the country in the High Human Development category—positioning it at 110 out of 193 countries and territories.[3] Despite its overall high human development status, South Africa faces a challenge in tackling high inequality, a concern echoed in the report as impacting several countries, in part exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and high unemployment. The report reveals a 35.6% decline in HDI for South Africa when accounting for inequality, positioning the country among the top 10 countries (out of 48) in the high human development category that experienced a drop in human development due to inequality. Notably, inequality in income (59.9%), education (17.3%), and life expectancy (19.5%), emphasize three policy domains South Africa needs to focus on in terms of policy:

  • Enlarging people’s choices: This involves tackling structural exclusion and enhancing human capabilities. Tackling structural exclusion will require addressing historical inequalities, adding protection laws, confronting harmful societal norms, practices, and biases, and addressing the diverse needs of vulnerable groups. Then, enhancing human capabilities will be about universal access to quality basic services as foundations to thrive in a competitive and turbulent world. This means ensuring universal access to essential services such as  healtheducationskills, and the digital sphere.

  • Human security in a more turbulent world:  Achieving this will require a holistic approach, especially in four areas: strengthening social protection schemes, ensuring health security, enabling proactive disaster risk management and risk-informed development, and guaranteeing food security.

  • Obligations to future generations: This means consideration of the long-term environmental and societal impacts. Policymakers should focus on accelerating a just energy transition and achieving net zero, investing in climate-resilient development, and protecting biodiversity and ecosystems while managing public finances more responsibly. 

UNDP is supporting South Africa in these areas of human development, from systems and institutional strengthening to inclusive growth and sustainable livelihoods, as well as sustainable energy, climate and environment resilience to ensure sustainable growth for both people and the planet. 


About the author

Rogers Dhliwayo is the Economics Adviser for the UNDP South Africa Country Office in Pretoria


[1] Read the full Human Development Report at

[2] The HDI measures progress in terms of societal outcomes, including life expectancy at birth, expected and average years of schooling and gross national income per person.

[3] For additional insight read the Country Note at