Human Development: the Development of Nations

Human development, as set out by the United Nations, comprises three core areas: leading a long and healthy life, receiving a good education and enjoying a decent standard of living (a high income per capita).

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It goes without saying that a country that scores highly in these areas will be a more pleasant place to live in than one that scores poorly.

The world is constantly making progress in human development – but many nations lag behind due to inequality, lack of resources and bad government.

The Human Development Index (HDI) lightbulb image - click here for more information on this subject

The United Nations produce two Human Development Indices every two years: the ‘bog-standard’ HDI and the Inequality-adjusted HDI.

A country will score higher on the HDI when they have long life expectancy, long and effective education periods and a decent income per capita.

The inequality-adjusted HDI takes into account inequality in the distribution of healthcare, education and income. For this reason it’s the more useful of the two indices – United Nations says that the normal HDI is more of a ‘potential’ level of human development.

Norway currently tops both of the indices.

Life expectancy

A chart showing historical life expectancy by region

A country with a high life expectancy is likely to have low poverty, a good diet, strong economy and, perhaps most importantly, good healthcare.

The World Health Organisation publishes statistics on healthcare by country.

Countries with low life expectancy tend to have poor water sanitation, high levels of diseases (such as TB or malaria), high child mortality and a shortage of essential medicines.

Although a wealthy foreigner may be able to afford a good life in a country with a poor life expectancy, it will not be as easy.


Education is an incredibly important factor in a country’s development. It improves lives by allowing people to participate in the economy, by informing them about healthcare and by boosting civil participation and political awareness.

Education is especially important for people looking to study in another country, or expats who wish to bring children abroad.

Are the universities in your country of interest sufficiently effective (or prestigious) to hold you in good standing when you enter the workforce?

Will you be able to find suitable schooling for your children? Are you considering a move to a country where your daughter may be at a disadvantage because of her gender?

It is also something to look out for if you wish to start a business or company in another country: will you be able to find a suitably educated, literate workforce?

The UNDP calculates its education index on mean years of schooling and expected years of schooling.

The OECD Better Life Index also has a section on education which is well worth a read.

Years of education

Mean years of schooling correlate strongly with a high level of human development. Worldwide, years of compulsory education are on the up, but there are still countries which lag far behind.

Interestingly, across OECD countries, a gender disparity trend is reversing: women are now more likely to complete tertiary (higher) education than men are.


Worldwide literacy is currently on the rise. According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)’s statistics arm, worldwide youth illiteracy is down to 10% – it was around 25% just 50 years ago. Despite this, some 750million adults in the world who are illiterate – two thirds of whom are women.

UNESCO have published a handy eAtlas of literacy so that you can check rates by country.

Standard of living

There are many definitions for a high standard or ‘quality’ of life. The Human Development Index uses only gross national income per capita, while Numbeo’s index takes into account:

…purchasing power index (higher is better), pollution index (lower is better), house price to income ratio (lower is better), consumer price index (lower is better), safety index (higher is better), health care index (higher is better), traffic commute time index (lower is better) and climate index (higher is better)”

Other factors to look at include the job market (can you find employment easily?), the property market (can you find affordable housing easily?) and safety (can you enjoy your new job and home without being defrauded or burgled?).

Income per capita

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can protect people from a lot of unhappiness.

Measuring quality of living by GDP per capita is problematic, as it assumes that a country’s wealth disseminates more or less equally throughout the population. We know this isn’t the case in many places.

Looking at a country’s average wage is a better indicator of standards of living.

A decent income improves access to housing, healthcare and education.

See this list for average wages by country and this list for GDP per capita by country.


If you are a working-age adult considering a move abroad, a healthy job market is a must.

Even if you are not intending to work in your new country (if, for example, you have retired), a high level of employment is a good measure of standard of living. Low unemployment usually means a stronger economy, a more stable government – and it even correlates with a healthy population.

See our individual country guides for more information about the availability of work in your country of interest.

Housing/ property

The state of the property market is something you will come across early when looking to live or work in another country.

How much property is available?

First, is there a good amount of property available to buy and rent? In a market heavily weighted to the sellers’ and landlords’ side, prices are pushed up and dodgy renting practices are more common.

Is there good quality property available?

Can you easily find housing that meets your standards?

Some countries may lack a good supply of property with adequate water supply, electricity supply or internet connection.

Some countries, unburdened by decent regulation, may have more properties that are built to shabby standards.

See our individual country guides for information about what property is available in your country of interest.

Is property over or undervalued?

Is housing overvalued?

The OECD’s focus on house prices calculates housing valuation in this way:

… if the price-to-rent ratio (a measure of the profitability of owning a house) and the price-to-income ratio (a measure of affordability) are above their long-term averages, house prices are said to be overvalued, and vice-versa.”


Places where housing is overvalued are more likely to see a sharp correction – a fall – in price. Not good news if you’ve bought a property.

Is housing affordable?

This is somewhat covered in the valuation category, above, but your circumstances might be different from the majority of locals. Can you afford to live comfortably without over-stretching your finances on rent or mortgage payments?

Work out a budget and see what percentage of your income you would have to spend on housing. Eurostat classify an expenditure of more than 40% as an ‘overburden’.


Is your personal safety at high risk in the country you are looking to live or work in?

See our Global Guide to Crime, Corruption and Justice and our individual country guides for more information.

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