Behind the scenes of the making of a flagship UN report on human development

5 October 2009

A year and a half ago, researchers at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) sent a series of emails to thousands of people around the world. Those messages marked the first steps in a long and detailed journey that culminated in today’s release of the latest edition of what has become one of the UN’s flagship publications – the Human Development Report.

A year and a half ago, researchers at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) sent a series of emails to thousands of people around the world. Those messages marked the first steps in a long and detailed journey that culminated in today’s release of the latest edition of what has become one of the UN’s flagship publications – the Human Development Report.

The UNDP emails went to the “human development network” – the academics, government officials, UN staff, civil society groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who specialize in the field, canvassing their views on an appropriate theme for this year’s edition.

The consensus was migration, and soon the researchers began work on background papers, starting the lengthy process that formed the heart of the project: gathering, sifting and analyzing reams of data from Norway to Niger to produce the report.

“We started with a concept note,” explains Francisco Rodríguez, the head of the research team for the HDR, which comprises about 25 staff working full-time at both headquarters in New York and in offices in the field. “Just a four- to five-page outline with the idea and a tentative structure, and that was it.”

Less than 20 years after it was first issued, the annual HDR has acquired a reputation as the heavyweight document in its field. Mr. Rodríguez notes that it is cited more often by development academics than any other publication by an international organization. Its accompanying index ranking the world’s countries has also become a favourite of media outlets, national governments and lobby groups.

But it all starts with those emails, laying the groundwork for what UNDP hopes – the fallibility of statistics notwithstanding – will be a comprehensive measure of how the world is faring in efforts to achieve human development.

Mr. Rodríguez says it’s easy to forget just how radical the HDR was considered when it was introduced in 1990, an era when gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was regarded as the standard measure of human development.

“It was really revolutionary. It changed the way a lot of policy-makers and academics see development, that we have go beyond income to measure it. Its main strength is that it gives an alternative to a still very common uni-dimensional view of development, one that still emphasizes economic growth.”

Now, as the definition has expanded, indicators of school enrolment rates, literacy and life expectancy – which are all part of the report – have become central to the debate.

“Human development is really about how we can expand opportunities for people,” says Mr. Rodríguez, noting that the report could be even broader and more useful if it incorporated the elements that researchers find hard to measure, such as human rights, culture and the impact of climate change.

Accurate, meaningful data on inequality, especially within a country, have long been hard to obtain, but Mr. Rodríguez says recent breakthroughs mean that is likely to change starting next year.

In any case, Mr. Rodríguez and his team have already started work on that edition (an anniversary review of the HDR and how it can be improved) and soon, he says, another set of emails will need to be sent out – about possible topics for 2011.

 

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