A Sustainable Human Development Index in the Post 2015 era

‘Only one thing matters: sustainability’. This may very well make people frowning and provoke lots of question marks. However, when one realises what sustainability is all about, one can only agree. The famous Brundtland Commission has defined sustainability – already nearly 25 years ago – as follows:
A sustainable society is a society
  • that meets the needs of the present generation,
  • that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
To avoid any possible misunderstanding whether all three wellbeing dimensions are included or not, this definition can be extended with a third sentence
  • in which each human being has the opportunity to develop itself in freedom, within a well-balanced society and in harmony with its surroundings.
The Brundtland definition leaves no doubt with respect to the necessity of both intra- and intergenerational solidarity and equity of Human Wellbeing (HW) around the globe and across the years. Many international treaties, among these the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, lead to the same conclusion. In order to ensure the possibility of a reasonable level of HW in the near and distant future, a reasonable level of Environmental Wellbeing (EW) is an absolute precondition. And again, many international agreements have been signed in which many if not all countries commit themselves to take the utmost care of our environment. Thus there are two main goals: Human Wellbeing and Environmental Wellbeing. HW without EW will be a dead end, EW without HW makes no sense, at least not from an anthropocentric point of view.
Since the achievement of HW and EW requires a reasonable level of Economic Wellbeing (EcW), the latter has to be taken care of also. This requires that not only the two main goals, HW and EW, are to be achieved, but also EcW, the latter not being a goal in itself, but the precondition to achieve a reasonable level of HW and EW. That will be the challenge for the UNDP now it is considering to extend the valuable Human Development Index (HDI) with the main sustainability issues into an Sustainable HDI (S-HDI).

Framework HDI 

The current HDI comprises
  • Life expectancy
  • Education (mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling)
  • Income (Gross National Income per capita, PPP)
It has already been suggested to extend the current HDI with 
  • CO2 emissions
  • Water consumption
  • Land area / crop area
  • Ecological Footprint – EF 
  • Biodiversity (Red List)
  • Adjusted Net Savings – ANS 
  • Inequality (expressed by income distribution)
  • Employment
This certainly is not a complete list. Further indicators will soon be suggested. However, take care – for reasons of transparency and easy communication – that the number of indicators remains limited.


The current as well as the already suggested indicators vary a lot in nature. One can cluster them – and probable further indicators – into the three wellbeing dimensions:

1. Education
2.Life expectancy
3.Income distribution

1. CO2 emissions
2. Water consumption
3. Land area
4. EF
5. Biodiversity
1. GDP
2. ANS
3. Employment

This will result in a transparent framework, which comprises a limited set of indicators and shows at a glance the actual situation for each indicator as well as the actual level of wellbeing for HW, EW and EcW. One might consider to also calculate one overall figure for the level of sustainability for each country as well as for the world as a whole.

Nine planetary boundaries

Beside the indicators which will be included in the S-HDI, it is most valuable to regularly report the actual situation of the nine planetary boundaries, which have been determined by Rockström et al. Within these boundaries humanity can expect to operate safely. According to the authors, three boundaries already have been transgressed: climate change, biodiversity loss and changes to the global nitrogen cycle. The impact of an individual country on some boundaries (CO2, water consumption and loss of biodiversity) can be measured and expressed in the S-HDI. For other boundaries this can only be done with great difficulty and uncertainty. Therefore, a separate presentation of the state of the art of the planetary boundaries, beside the S-HDI, is preferable. This will have a high added value.

Post 2015 era

Will it be possible to connect S-HDI with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015, when the MDGs will be renewed and replaced by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? And if possible, does it makes sense to do so? Both instruments, S-HDI and SDGs, are aiming at the same goal: The future we want, thus enhancing and accelerating progress towards a sustainable society. The paths followed by the two instruments are similar, though maybe not completely equal. Until now the HDI comprises a very limited number (3 – 4) of indicators, whereas the MDGs include 60 indicators to monitor progress. As said above, most probably the number of indicators for the S-HDI will be quite a few more than the current 3 – 4. And it is very possible that the number of indicators for the SDGs will be substantially less than the present 60. It will make the SDGs more transparent. Even more important is that less detailed targets (and indicators) offer countries the opportunity to decide themselves where to give priorities in improving for instance a country’s health: by reducing child mortality, or by combatting HIV/AIDS, or by measures against malaria etc.
Thus it might very well be that S-HDI and SDGs will converge in the near future. Until that stage has been achieved, it is preferable to keep both instruments, the S-HDI and the Monitor of the SDGs. Don’t throw away a valuable instrument until one can be sure that the new one lives up to one’s requirements and expectations.
The most important measure will be to regularly – yearly – publish the results of the monitoring process, not only in a global report but also in a – public – report for each country separately; the country report to be sent to the Government and the Parliament. Keep the pressure high. No country can accept to be blamed for its poor performance on the long run, be it Afghanistan or Zimbabwe or any country in between A and Z.
And finally, let’s not forget the urgent call of the Stiglitz Commission: we need up to date and reliable data. A challenge for governments and their statistical offices.
March 7th, 2013
Geurt van de Kerk
Sustainable Society Foundation