Indicators of Human Development

When thinking about developed nations, we often immediately think of economic factors and how wealthy a nation is - if a nation is wealthy, people are happy. However, this is not the case. Populations will gain from the wealth of their nation, however, it doesn't necessarily indicate the level of their well-being. This is where Human Development becomes vital for understanding the development levels of a nation, in relation to the lives of the people living there. Norway ranks top in the world for its level of human development, with Niger at the very bottom. This is measured using specific indicators of human development, such as the Human Development Index. But what exactly is this? Are there different factors that affect the level of human development? Let's find out!

Indicators of Human Development Indicators of Human Development

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Table of contents

    Human development indicators definition

    You have probably heard the term 'development' quite a few times when studying Geography. But what does it actually mean?

    Development is how standards of living across the world are improved.

    Development indicators are measures to show differential development levels in countries across the world. These can be economic, social and environmental.

    It is important to note that the definition of development differs around the world, as countries may have different values.

    So, with an understanding of development and development indicators, let's try and understand the definition of human development and human development indicators.

    Human development is the idea of improving the well-being of the population of a nation. It gives people opportunities to make a life for themselves, and choices regarding their lives1.

    Human development indicators, then, are measures to show the different human development levels across the world.


    When discussing development, there has been a focus on the economic growth of a nation. Commonly, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been used as an indicator to measure this economic growth. GDP is an economic measure of much money a country makes from its products or services.

    Advantages of using GDP

    • Produces a simplistic figure, which is easy to compare between countries.
    • Demonstrates the current economic climate.

    Disadvantages of using GDP

    • Gives a generalised figure of national wealth, and doesn't show if there is inequality of wealth.
    • Purely an economic figure and does not show anything about human contentment, life satisfaction, or general well-being - it ignores the actual human side of things.
    • It ignores the shadow economy and voluntary work.

    Life satisfaction can vary according to wealth and income levels, and with different life satisfaction rates around the world! Some people may have similar life satisfaction, even though levels of wealth are different.

    Human Development was coined by Dr Mahbub ul Haq, in 1970. He stated that the well-being of populations was not being taken into account when discussing levels of development, and that economic measurements ignored this. In 1990, he produced the first Human Development Report, as part of the United Nations Development Programme, which focuses solely on improving people's lives2. Human development, then, looks at the quality of life of populations.

    Human Development Index

    The Human Development Index (HDI) is one of the most important multi-component indicators of human development and is used as part of the United Nations Development Programme. It creates a single figure from three data sets, quality of health (life expectancy), knowledge levels (education index) and the standard of living (Gross National Income (GNI)).

    Human development index indicators

    There are three indicators that work together to assess human development. Let's take a look at these human development index indicators in a little more detail.

    Quality of Health

    This is measured using Life Expectancy, which is the average number of years a person will live. This can demonstrate the quality of healthcare in a country. Higher Life Expectancy indicates a higher human development rate. Health is also important for economic growth.

    Health and life expectancy levels differ greatly between countries, such as India and the UK, or within countries themselves, such as the North of England and the South of England. Further your knowledge on this topic, by looking at the reasons health and life expectancy levels differ and don't forget to use examples.

    The level of knowledge (Education)

    Education is vital for economic development and is seen as an investment in Human Capital, alongside health. It is also key to political participation, as well as gaining knowledge of human rights. This is measured using the Education Index, which takes into account the average number of years in education.

    The UN International Bill of Human Rights recognises that everyone has a right to free education at primary, secondary and higher levels. However, at present, more than 72 million children at the primary school level are not at school due to inequalities and marginalisation. It is reported that sub-Saharan Africa is the most affected area, with 32 million children at primary school age remaining uneducated. In these countries, gender imbalance is significant. Girls make up 54% of the non-schooled population.4 This occurs in Arab states, Asia as well as sub-Saharan African countries where culture and tradition give privilege to males. Lack of education affects social and economic development which leads to low levels of human capital. It is important to note that HDI education index alone does not highlight the gender imbalance.

    Standard of Living

    This is measured using Gross National Income (GNI). This is the total value of goods and services produced within a country together with the balance of income and payments from or to other countries. This indicator is quantitative, making it easier to compare countries and to assess the growth of the nation's economy. However, these goods and services can be distributed unevenly and it does not truly indicate the quality of life in a country. The relationship between income and life satisfaction is complex and doesn't necessarily correlate.

    Norway ranks top in HDI globally, with a figure of 0.954 out of 1. It ranks highly on the three HDI indicators. Take a look at 'Further Indicators of Human Development' and further your knowledge by checking out Norway's statistics on some of these indicators too!

    Advantages of the HDI

    • The focus isn't solely on economic factors; social factors are the most prominent, therefore focussing more on the actual human, which is the overall aim of human development measures.
    • It is simple to compare between nations, as it is displayed as a number (between 0-1).
    • It is a globally used measurement, with 189 nations' HDI levels displayed.

    Disadvantages of the HDI

    • With the GNI still being a significant part of HDI, it has been criticised for still having an economic focus.
    • The HDI figure does not show differences in gender, providing a generalised figure for things like education or health.
    • The HDI does not show inequalities - the GNI figure could just represent the super-rich in society, outweighing and therefore ignoring the very poor.
    • The HDI doesn't take into account other factors, such as warfare, or whether someone has access to sanitation.

    Human development indicators

    Alongside the HDI, there are other human development indicators that could be used. Let's take a look at the Happy Planet Index (HPI).

    Happy Planet Index (HPI)

    The Happy Planet Index (HPI), is indicated using three data sets - life expectancy, well-being and ecological footprint, to measure the sustainable well-being of a country.

    The Happy Planet Index combines three elements to show how efficiently residents of different countries are using environmental resources to lead long, happy lives.5

    From this indicator, we can see that no country has achieved high and sustainable well-being across the board, and the scores of many high-income countries are low, due to their large ecological footprints.

    In your exam answers, it is important to evaluate the indicators of human development, such as GDP, HDI and even the HPI, looking at their positives and negatives.

    Factors affecting human development

    There are many different factors affecting human development, that the Human Development Index ignores. Let's take a look at a few of these factors, and also explore some other indicators that could be used alongside the HDI.

    Societal Systems

    There are many different ways societies can be run, which can affect different levels of human development. Let's take a look at a few examples.

    The Welfare State

    Within the idea of the welfare state, access to education and healthcare is free, and there are support systems in place for those who are in poverty, (through the tax system). This societal system supports human development.

    Political viewpoints

    Let's look at an example of a political viewpoint:

    Juan Evo Morales was the first Bolivian President to come from its indigenous majority. He was a socialist, who used his left-wing philosophy and traditional Andean values of communal ownership and cooperation. Morales renationalised Bolivia's gas and oil, using its revenue to fund public services and social programmes to fight poverty. Under his rule, poverty fell by 42%, with extreme poverty falling by 60%.6

    Indicators of Human Development Juan Evo Morales StudySmarterFig. 1: Juan Evo Morales


    There are many different religious viewpoints in society:

    Sharia law is a law of Islam and is dominant in Islamic countries. It is expressed in the Qur'an in the words of Prophet Muhammad. In essence, human development means something specific within Islam, whereby well-being is the ultimate goal. For example, taxes are paid to help those in poverty (Zakat).

    Welfare and poverty

    Poverty and welfare levels, as well as inequality, can impact human development levels. For example, the existence of war and conflict can impact the well-being of a population, causing anything from the loss of property, or even being forced to flee to safety. All of which, are ignored by other indicators of human development. Here are some examples of other indicators that could be used alongside the HDI:

    • Inequality-Adjusted HDI - This measures the HDI, however, takes into account the inequality levels within each of the three indicators.
    • Global Peace Index - the level of peace in a nation.
    • Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) - This essentially measures the extent of people's access (or lack of) to certain things (in relation to the three HDI indicators). Take a look at the image below.

    Gender equality and empowerment

    Around the world, inequality exists between men and women, where women often have fewer opportunities than men. Women should be equal to men, for human development to be considered as high. Some indicators are used to help show the differences between men and women. Some indicator examples are:

    Gender Development Index (GDI) - This uses the HDI indicators, but highlights the differences in gender.

    Gender Inequality Index (GII) - This measures male and female differences in 3 factors7:

    • Reproductive health (maternal mortality rate and adolescent fertility rate).
    • Empowerment (education rates and the number of seats in parliament).
    • Labour (women in employment).

    For the purposes of this explanation, when discussing gender, only males and females are highlighted. However, it is important to think about other genders and how this could impact equality and wellbeing.

    Government Type

    It is important to understand that governments around the world can impact human development. Different governments may have different attitudes towards how their country is run, which can affect where money is spent.

    Dictatorship North Korea, under the rule of Kim Jong-un, can be an example of how governments can impact human development. North Korea is characterised by high poverty levels, poor access to nutrition, and violations of human rights.

    IGOs (intergovernmental organisations) can also impact global human development. Take a look at the Role of Governments and IGOs explanation! Further your knowledge and use examples such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the Structural Adjustment Programme.

    Indicators of human development - Key takeaways

    • GDP was the most common measure of development, however, there has been too much focus on economic indicators to accurately measure human development levels.

    • The Human Development Index (HDI) is the main measurement of human development, characterised by 3 indicators (health, education, and standard of living).

    • Levels of health and life expectancy can vary between and within countries.

    • Education is important for human capital.

    • The Happy Planet Index (HPI) offers another measurement of human development.

    • Different societal systems can mean that human development differs (e.g. politics, religion).

    • Some factors are ignored in human development indicators, such as gender, therefore highlighting the need for other indicators.

    • Governments and IGOs can also affect levels of human development.


    1. United Nations Development Programme, About Human Development ,
    2. Measure of America of the Social Science Research Council, About Human Development,,by%20economist%20Mahbub%20ul%20Haq.
    3. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Index,,each%20of%20the%20three%20dimensions.
    4. Humanium, Right to education: situation around the world,
    5. Happy Planet Index, How Happy is the Planet? 2021,
    6. CEPR, New Report Reviews Changes in Bolivia's Economy under Evo Morales's Presidency
    7. World Health Organisation, Gender Inequality Index,,empowerment%20and%20the%20labour%20market. - Juan Evo Morales Image,
    8. Fig. 1: Juan Evo Morales (, by Joel Alvarez, CC BY 3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Indicators of Human Development

    What is the human development index?

    This is an indicator of human development, using three measurements; quality of health (life expectancy), level of knowledge (education rates), and the standard of living (Gross National Income).

    What are the three main indicators of human development?

    The three main indicators of human development include the quality of health (life expectancy), level of knowledge (education rates), and the standard of living (Gross National Income).

    What is the importance of human development?

    The human development index is important as there has been a focus on purely economic measurements for development in the past, such as GDP; the HDI takes into account the people living in a country, rather than just the economy. 

    What are the components of the human development index?

    The three components of the human development index are quality of health, level of knowledge, and the standard of living. 

    What are the indicators of human development?

    The main indicator of human development is the Human Development Index (HDI). Other indicators can include the Happy Planet Index (HPI), as well as indicators that show levels of poverty and welfare, and gender inequalities. 

    What are development indicators?

    Development indicators are numerical measures used to illustrate progress of economic, social and environmental goals.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who ranks top in the world for the HDI?

    The HDI should be used on its own as an accurate way to measure human development.

    In general, who has a longer life expectancy, men or women? 

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