U.N. places work at the center of global development

Seamstresses at work at Djamina Couture in Lome, Togo. (David Stanley/flickr)

Work is a fundamental dynamic driver for enhancing human development, and a primary means to achieving the goal of ending extreme poverty, according to a new report from the U.N. Development Program.

“Human progress will accelerate when everyone who wants to work has the opportunity to do so under decent circumstances,” said Selim Jahan, the report’s lead author. “Yet in many countries, people are often excluded from paid work, or are paid less than others for doing work of the same value.”

The annual Human Development report, best known for its Human Development Index, looks at information from 188 countries around the world to compare the countries and measure progress.

As with most measures of well-being, Norway comes out on top, alongside Australia and Switzerland. European and North American countries dominate the top 20. The bottom is predominantly made up of sub-Saharan African countries, with Niger and Central African Republic at the bottom. Instability in Libya and Syria caused  both countries to drop on the list, and the U.S. dropped by one place to eighth overall.

There was drop number of people living in countries the report categorizes as having low human development – 2 billion in the past 25 years. On its face, that looks like an impressive improvement, but it’s just showing the overall improvement of the different countries, and don’t reflect inequalities within each country on the report. The report recognizes this problem, admitting that major inequalities persist. For example, women do more than half of all the work in the world, but are less likely to be paid for the work. Those who do get paid make an average of 24 percent less, globally.

The authors takes a nuanced view and argument about work. It makes clear that it is not just about paid employment – as evidenced by the stats on women who do unpaid work. And while ensuring that people are paid to work is important, the value they create for communities and countries cannot be underestimated. A total of 830 million people who work, live on less than $2 a day. And another 200 million people are categorized as unemployed. The report makes clear that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will happen when there are more opportunities for people to work and to receive fair pay.

“This report puts people rather than economies or economic growth at its center, by focusing on all kinds of paid and unpaid work from running a home to running a business,” said Helen Clark, head of UNDP and former prime minister of New Zealand, at an event announcing the report. “Work helps people escape from poverty. It can also help forge stronger communities, develop skills and give people a sense of purpose. Work is much more than a pay check: it is a foundation for both the richness of economies and the richness of human lives.”

One such linkage between work and development is in health care. It is estimated that the global health workforce must grow by 45 million workers by 2030 in order to meet the global goals on health. That is a massive opportunity to create jobs, particularly in the countries with the greatest public health needs.

The report goes on to make wide ranging recommendations from conditional cash transfers to reduce inequality to schemes aimed at providing care for elderly individuals who can no longer work. Putting work at the forefront aligns with the very issue that survey after survey finds is the greatest concern for the world’s poor – employment.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.