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Human development in Africa: A long-run perspective

How has Africa performed over the long-run in terms of wellbeing? This column aims to answer this question by improving the UN’s Human Development Index. By looking at data stretching from 1870 to 2007, it argues that human development in Africa is lower than previously thought and that compared to the developed world, Africa stopped catching up in 1980 and began to fall behind.

Concern about sluggish growth in Africa has led economists to investigate its performance and its determinants over the recent past (an exception is provided by Ndulu et al (2008), which covers the last half century). The dearth of data, however, has not discouraged economic historians from investigating earlier periods and providing explicit hypotheses about African long-run performance (Acemoglu and Robinson 2010, Austin 2008, Jerven 2010, Nunn 2008). Research, though, has focused on GDP per head and other dimensions of development have been largely neglected. Thus, questions such as “How has Africa performed over the long-run in terms of wellbeing?” and “How has Africa behaved vis-à-vis other developing regions?” have never been addressed.

On the basis of a new index of human development, constructed with an alternative approach to the UN Development Programme’s index (UNDP 2010), I have made an attempt to answer these questions (Prados de la Escosura 2011).1

The main difference from the UNDP index is that in the alternative human development index proposed here, IHDI, as a social indicator reaches higher levels, and its increases represent higher achievements than would have occurred had the same increase taken place at a lower level, while in the UNDP HDI they reflect the same change regardless of its starting level.2

The new ‘improved’ Human Development Index (IHDI) provides systematically lower levels of human development, although roughly the same long-run trends, than both the conventional pre-2010 UNDP Index (HDI) and the new ‘hybrid’ index (Hybrid HDI), and deepens the gap between Africa and the rest of the world (Figures 1 and 2).3

Figure 1. Human development in Africa: IHDI, hybrid, and ‘old’ HDI, 1870-2007

Figure 2. Relative human development in Africa: IHDI, hybrid, and ‘old' HDI, 1870-2007 (World = 1)

A long-run improvement in human development – with three differentiated phases, in which a sustained improvement took place between two periods of slow growth, 1870-1913 and 1980-2007– is observed for Africa that, nonetheless, falls short of the achievements in Asia or Latin America. Compared to the developed world, Africa stopped catching up in 1980 and fell behind (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Relative IHDI across developing regions, 1870-2007 (OECD = 1)

Life expectancy has been the main contributor to human development improvement in the world. In Africa, however, life expectancy was only leading its advance during the 1930s and 1940s and education became the driving force since the mid-20th century. Stagnating life expectancy due to the spread of HIV/AIDS (and the resilience of malaria) together with arrested growth, largely resulting from economic mismanagement, political turmoil, and civil wars, have made advances in human development dependent almost exclusively on educational achievements since 1990. These facts help to explain Africa’s falling behind in terms of wellbeing (Figure 4).

Figure 4. IHDI growth and its decomposition in Africa, 1870-2007 (%)

A growing divergence between North and sub-Saharan Africa emerged from the mid-twentieth century and has deepened since 1980. Within Africa, a process of conditional convergence appears to have taken place during the last half a century (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Human development in sub-Saharan and North Africa: IHDI, 1870-2007

Location and resource endowment, as well as former colonial status, influence the level of human development and condition its rate of growth. However, a major and negative influence derives from the political-economic distortions or syndromes that have afflicted the continent, and especially sub-Saharan Africa, since independence.

A reversal in the longevity decline as a result of the fight against HIV/AIDS and, especially, an improvement in economic activity have contributed to a mild recovery of human development in the 2000s, in which education continues to play the main role. The large variance in countries’ behaviour suggests caution is warranted about the extent to which this improvement will provide the foundations for a change in trend that would allow Africa and, especially, sub-Saharan Africa, to catching up with the West.


Acemoglu, D and JA Robinson (2010), “Why is Africa Poor”, Economic History of Developing Regions 25(1): 21-50.

Austin, G (2008), “Resources, Techniques, and Strategies South of the Sahara: Revising the Factor Endowments Perspective on African Economic Development, 1500–2000” Economic History Review 61(3): 587-624

Jerven, M (2010), “African Growth Recurring: An Economic History Perspective on African Growth Episodes, 1690-2010”, Economic History of Developing Regions 25(2): 127-154.

Ndulu, BJ, S O’Connell, JP Azam, RH Bates, AK Fosu, JW Gunning and D Njinkeu (eds) (2008), The Political Economy of Economic Growth in Africa, 1960-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunn, N. (2008), “The Long Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 123: 139-176.

Sen, A (1981) “Public Action and the Quality of Life in Developing Countries’, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics 43 (4): 287-319

Prados de la Escosura, L (2011), “Human Development in Africa: A Long-run Perspective”, CEPR Discussion Paper 8586.

UNDP (2010), “The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development”, Human Development Report 2010.

1 As a synthetic measure of human development, the UNDP HDI attempts to capture a country’s achievements in longevity, knowledge and standard of living through various indicators: the relative achievement in life expectancy at birth, in education, and in “all dimensions of human development not reflected in a long and healthy life and in knowledge” for which the discounted per capita income is taken as a surrogate. In October 2010 the Human Development Report (UNDP 2010) introduced major changes in the indicators used to capture human development dimensions. A major change was that indices for each dimension are now combined using a geometric, rather than an arithmetic average.

2 In Amartya Sen’s words (1981), “as, say, longevity becomes high, it becomes more of an achievement to raise it further”. It should also be borne in mind that the longer life expectancy, the longer the number of years during which good health is enjoyed. Similarly, the quality of the education received at every level increases with the number of years of schooling.

3 Since the new index is very data demanding, a non-negligible part of the information needed for its construction is not available across countries and over time (for example, mean years of schooling or GNI). Thus, ‘old’ indicators (namely, literacy and school enrolment for education, and real GDP per head) had to be recovered in so-called ‘hybrid’ human development index. A ‘hybrid’ index has been derived as a geometric average of indices for each dimension derived from the ‘old’ indicators but with the new goalposts.

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