Humans are living longer, literacy rates are up, and the world is in many ways a healthier and wealthier place. In China alone, more than eight hundred million people have left conditions of poverty thanks to their country’s rapid development, and extreme poverty rates are declining worldwide.

Global Population Living Under Extreme Poverty

But development is more than just the absence of poverty and not everyone in the world is better off.

For starters, no one can really agree on what development is.

Development deals with the overall well-being of people in a given country. But what exactly does someone need to live well? Is a steady income enough, or does someone need other things, such as access to education and health care? Can a country be considered developed if some of its citizens fare much better than many others? Because there are no clear answers to these complex questions, there is no single definition of development.

Nonetheless, some of the world’s leading institutions, such as the United Nations, have taken up the task of defining development. The UN Development Program (UNDP), one of the largest “programs” within the United Nations, works with countries to reduce poverty and inequality. (Entities in the UN system are classified as funds, programs, specialized agencies, and others.) Here’s how the UNDP defines and measures development:

By many measures of development, it would appear that everything is improving. The world today is a healthier, better educated, and wealthier place than it was fifty years ago.

Three Dimensions of Development: A Global Look

But these trends do not tell the whole story. While these measures of global development are, on average, improving, not everyone has benefited equally. Roughly 85 percent of the world’s poor live in either sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, although these regions are home to only 38 percent of the world’s total population.

Just as extreme inequality can exist between regions, extreme inequality can also exist between countries in the same region. Twenty of the world’s twenty-five poorest countries are in sub-Saharan Africa. But some countries in the southern part of the region, such as South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia, have a higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita than countries in the northern part, near the Sahara.

Similarly, inequality can exist within countries, just as it does between them. South Africa has one of the largest economies and among the highest GDP per capita in its region, but it is also one of the most unequal countries there.  Meanwhile, the United States, the world’s largest economy, has higher income and wealth inequality than nearly any other developed country. Just because a country has high GDP or GDP per capita does not mean that the wealth is shared equitably among its citizens.

So why do some countries develop faster or more equally than others?

Development is a complex and varied process.

It can be difficult to determine why some regions and countries have developed faster than others because so many factors contribute to better or worse living standards for people in a given country. 

To get a sense of factors that lead to development, it’s helpful to look at both developed and developing countries as case studies.

Singapore’s economic miracle

Singapore’s GDP per Capita

Between 1965 and 2019, Singapore went from a newly independent country with scarce natural resources and a GDP per capita of $517 to a major global economy with a GDP per capita of $65,000, just behind the United States. Much of this success has been attributed to Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who combined economic modernization and authoritarian governance to welcome foreign trade and investment establish a strong rule of law. Singapore also focused on developing its people by investing in education. Since 1980, literacy rates have risen from 83 percent to 97 percent, and life expectancy has grown from seventy-two years to eighty-three years.

Haiti’s development troubles

GDP per Capita: Haiti and Its Neighbors

Few countries have had as much trouble with development as Haiti, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. As a result of an independence agreement with France in 1804, Haiti was internationally isolated and made to pay reparations over more than a hundred years to France for the loss of its colony—the equivalent of $20 billion today. This foreign debt severely set back the young country’s economy, and, at times, foreign powers controlled Haiti’s finances. In 1915, the United States, concerned with protecting its economic and political interests in Haiti, invaded the country, rewrote Haiti’s constitution to allow foreigners to own land, and moved Haiti’s financial reserves to the United States. The occupation lasted nineteen years. More recently, internal political instability has spooked potential investors and has continued to hold back development and investment, and natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake destroyed crucial infrastructure.

Syria’s disastrous war

Syria’s Population

Development also doesn’t just go in one direction. A breakdown in the rule of law or a lasting, devastating conflict can hold back or even reverse development. Since 2011, Syria has been embroiled in a​​​​​​​ destructive civil war, which some experts estimate has claimed over half a million lives. It has also forced nearly six million people to flee the country and more than six million others to suffer internal displacement. A significant amount of physical infrastructure—such as roads and hospitals, which are crucial to communities and the economy—has also been destroyed in the fighting. Beyond the loss of life and human suffering, the result has been catastrophic to the Syrian economy: between 2011 and 2019, Syria suffered economic losses totaling an estimated $442 billion, or seven times its 2010 GDP. Syria was never an economic leader even before the war, and the ongoing conflict has set back the country’s development even further.

The road map to development remains elusive.

History, natural resources, demographics, governance, geopolitics, conflict, and climate can drive—or hold back—development. People generally want their countries, and even other countries, to develop. But as these case studies illustrate, though there are recommended policies, there is no clear road map.

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