Human Development Index

Human Development Index Mapped for Greater South Asia and the Southern Himalayan Belt.

A recent GeoCurrents post on Nepal noted that the country has experienced less development than the rest of the southern Himalayan region, which was illustrated with an old map of per capita GDP. A more recent map of the Human Development Index (HDI) makes the same point: Nepal scores worse on this metric than either Bhutan or any of India’s Himalayan states.

The 2021 map of the Human Development Index (HDI) across greater South Asia shows the Himalayan belt in general ranking significantly higher than the adjacent lowlands of north-central and northeastern India. These results may seem paradoxical, as highland areas of rough topography are often much less developed than nearby areas of flat topography, which typically have much better infrastructure. But in many parts of the world, this generalization does not hold. As can be seen in the map below, the mountains of far-northeastern India have much higher levels of human development than the adjacent lowlands, whether in India, Bangladesh, or Burma. India’s small states along the Burmese boundary have relatively high HDI scores despite their rugged topography, problems with ethnic insurgency, and history of relative isolation. This seeming anomaly is partially explained by the educational focus of Christian missionaries in the region. Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya all have solid Christian majorities, while Manipur is almost half Christian and Arunachal Pradesh has a Christian plurality. Recent Indian infrastructural investments, along with the gradual reduction in insurgency, have also boosted human and economic development in the region.

The densely populated lowland states of north-central India have the country’s lowest levels of human development, despite forming the historical core of South Asia. This area of low HDI also extends into the mostly lowland state of Assam in northeastern India. Somewhat higher levels of human development, however, are encountered in the lowland Bengali-speaking zone encompassing Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. This area was until recently one of the poorest and least developed parts of South Asia, but it has experienced significant improvements in recent years. It is probably not coincidental that Bengalis have a well-deserved reputation for educational interest and intellectual engagement. To reflect the relatively high position of the Bengali-speaking zone in lowland northeastern South Asia, I have reconfigured the South Asia HDI map to depict Bengal as if it were a separate polity.

The partition of British India in 1947 was also a partition of Bengal, and the violence and economic destruction associated with it long held back the Bengali-speaking zone. A similar event occurred on the other side of South Asia, as the partition of British India was also a partition of Punjab. But here an entirely different pattern emerged. The parts of pre-partition Punjab that went to India (Punjab State, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh) have all experienced striking improvements in human well-being. The large Pakistani province of Punjab, on the other hand, has lagged behind, as has most of the rest of the country in which it is located. This pattern is not easy to explain. From 1947 to 1971, when Pakistan and Bangladesh formed one country, what was then West Pakistan was far ahead of what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on almost every economic and human-developmental score. But while Bangladesh experienced substantial improvements, Pakistan has struggled.

To illustrate the human-developmental gap between Pakistan and India/Bangladesh, I made another iteration of the HDI map that breaks down both Pakistan and India into their largest constituent units. I had to go back to 2019 to find easily accessible HDI data at this level, and I am not sure if the data are fully comparable. What the map shows, however, is stark, with Pakistani Punjab and most of the rest of the country coming in with scores much lower than almost any part of India. The extraordinarily low HDI figure for Balochistan is highly significant, helping explain the long-running insurgency of this resource-rich region.

Pakistan’s higher HDI values are found in the mountainous northern regions of the country. Other than tiny Islamabad, the country’s highest HDI levels are in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan (areas claimed by India). Gilgit-Baltistan is noted for his extremely rugged topography and, until recently, its relative isolation from the rest of the world. It has, however, seen remarkable gains in education and social development more generally over the past several decades. Pakistani infrastructural investments, aimed at securing access to western China, have no doubt play a role. More important have been the developmental projects of the Aga Khan Foundation. Many of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are Nizari Ismai’li Shia Muslims, a group headed by the Aga Khan. The Nizari Ismai’lis in general are a cosmopolitan, liberal, and well-educated people, and their leaders are keen to help their co-religionists in the most remote and rugged corners of northern Pakistan.

The final map in this post is the base map on which all of the other maps are constructed. Like all GeoCurrents maps, it is made in simple presentation software, Apple Keynote (equivalent to PowerPoint). Before long, I hope to make this map available for free on this website in both Keynote and PowerPoint formats. It is a very simple matter to click on any of the units and change their color or their boundaries in any way one sees fit. Similarly, the place names can be deleted, and others can be added, very easily.

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Human Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Recent Gains and Losses

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have noted substantial improvements in human development over the past several decades, as measured by the human development index (HDI). As the first map posted here shows, some of the world’s least developed countries have experienced the largest gains. Only a few countries saw HDI values decline from 2010 to 2020 (Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Venezuela, Jordan, and Timor Leste).



Although sub-Saharan Africa registered impressive improvements, it still has the world’s lowest HDI figures, and by a substantial margin. A world map showing only countries in the World Bank’s “low human development” tier, posted here, includes just three countries outside of the region (Haiti, Yemen, and Afghanistan). Within sub-Saharan Africa, however, much of the west and most of the south are excluded.

The World Bank’s HDI tiers might not be the best way to the categorize human development standings. Are we really expected to believe that Papua New Guinea has a “medium” level of human development? (Admittedly, it just barely makes this category.) The thresholds for the categories seem be too low to accurately represent public conceptualization of this issue. The index might also underestimate income levels, putting too much emphasis on education and health. Finally, the numbers used to generate the index are not necessarily accurate – particularly in the poorer parts of the world.

One relatively easily measured metric clearly shows that sub-Saharan Africa, or at least its central-interior portion, is by far the least developed part of the world: electricity access. The numbers here are shocking. Whereas countries as poor as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have achieved full electrification, Chad and Burundi still had electrification rates below 12 percent in 2016. In several areas, the situation has deteriorated since 2020. As a recent Brookings report notes:

In fact, in developing countries in Africa, the number of people without electricity increased in 2020 (after declining over the past six years) and basic electricity services are now unaffordable. Moreover, the cost of electricity services in sub-Saharan Africa remains among the highest in the world—and those who can afford electricity often face unreliable service. As poverty levels increase, countries will be forced to scale back to basic electricity access because citizens will not be able to afford formal electricity bundles.

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Mapping the Human Development Index (HDI) in Greater South Asia

(Note: Today’s scheduled post on language and nationalism needs more work and therefore its publication will be delayed).

On a map of the World Bank’s Human Development Index divided into the standard categories, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka*) is depicted as a land of “medium” development, better than central and north-central Africa, but worse than most of the rest of the world. Sri Lanka is an exception, falling instead into the “high development” category. This data, however, was collected before Sri Lanka’s recent economic melt-down. Presumably its HDI figure will decline.

When South Asia’s HDI rankings are broken down into finer categories and mapped in their regional context (one covering Burma and Afghanistan as well as portions of neighboring countries), several spatial patterns are evident. Here India, Bangladesh, and Nepal appear at a medium developmental level, and are flanked on the east and northwest by countries of lower ranking (Burma [Myanmar] and Pakistan & Afghanistan respectively). Bracketing “Greater South Asia” as a whole, one finds countries with much higher HDI levels (China, Iran, and Thailand).

These patterns vanish, however, when the larger countries of the region are broken down into their first-order administrative divisions (states, provinces, regions, etc. **). On this map, the borders between countries are hard to distinguish, and sometimes disappear altogether. China may have a much higher HDI level than India, but many Indian states post higher figures than the neighboring Chinese region of Tibet.

The rest of this post looks at parts of this Greater South Asia that have low HDI figures relative to the rest of the region. Later posts will examine areas with relatively high HDI, as well as regional developmental discrepancies.

South Asia’s most heavily populated area, India’s central Ganges Valley, is characterized low HDI. This region, consisting of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is home to some 312 million people; it would be the world’s fourth most populous country if it were independent. The central Ganges Valley is a generally flat area with fertile soils and plentiful water (especially in the east). It is also the historical heartland of South Asia civilization. Its economic and social development, however, lags behind the rest of the country. Not coincidentally, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are also known for their high levels of corruption and their caste and religious tensions.

To the south of Bihar is the Indian state of Jharkhand, also characterized by low levels of social development. Ironically, it has India’s richest mineral deposits (especially coal) and has therefore been described as an example of the “resource curse.” Most of Jharkhand is a hilly plateau, and it has a large number of adivasis (“tribal people”). It has also been the site of numerous Maoist (Naxalite) attacks on governmental institutions.



Lower levels of human development are encountered in South Asia’s northwestern fringe. Both the western and eastern parts of Afghanistan, encompassing areas of both Pashtun and Tajik ethnicity, post very low HDI figures. Significantly higher levels are found in central Afghanistan, especially in and around Kabul. Across the country, HDI levels showed significant increases in the first two decades of the century. It will be interesting to see how they change with the Taliban back in power. Preliminary indications are not positive.

Very low levels of human development are also found in Pakistan’s Balochistan region, the country’ largest and most mineral-rich province. Not surprisingly, the ethnically distinct people of this area (mostly Baloch and Brahui) have been in periodic rebellion for decades. Baloch insurgents have recently launched attacks on Chinese-financed infrastructural projects in their region, which they see as benefitting the rest of Pakistan rather than themselves. While Balochistan as a whole posts an HDI figure of only .48, some of its internal districts have much lower numbers still. According to one source, Awaran, known as Pakistan’s “oasis of dates,” has a shockingly low HDI figure of only .17 (2017 data). Outside of Balochistan, the same data source claims that Pakistan’s former FATA region (“Federally Administered Tribal Areas”) had a similarly miserable figure of .22 in 2017. In 2018, this previously largely unadministered region of Pashtun ethnicity was merged with the neighboring state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It still has one of the world’s lowest levels of female literacy. (Other sources give the dismantled FATA a substantially higher HDI figure of .46 [in 2019].)

Iran’s neighboring province of Sistan and Baluchestan is similar to Pakistan’s Balochistan in regard to its ethnic make-up and physical geography. Its HDI figure, .67, is, however, significantly higher. But Sistan and Baluchestan does have Iran’s lowest HDI figure, and by a sizable margin. It has also been the site of prolonged ethnic unrest.

Burma (Myanmar), although not conventionally classified as part of South Asia, also deserves a closer look. The country as a whole has a relatively low HDI figure despite its abundant resources and historical legacy of economic and social development (the noted historian Victor Lieberman thinks that Burma may have had the world’s highest level of literacy in the 1700s.) Intriguingly, Burma’s areas of particularly low development are not found in its marginalized, non-Burman, “tribal,” upland peripheries (more on this in the next most). The country’s profound “lowland/highland” and “Burman/ethnic minority” cleavages are not visible on this map.


Within Burma, a particularly low level of development is found in coastal Rakhine state. Known historically as Arakan, this area long formed an independent kingdom. The Arakanese people speak a language (dialect?) that is very closely related to Burmese. And like the Burmese-speaking ethnic Burmans, most of them follow Theravada Buddhism. Their lands have rich agricultural, marine, and forestry resources. But owing in part to its low levels of development, Rakhine is a restive region. The nationalist Arakan Liberation Army has recently ramped up its attacks on the Burmese state. The Arakan Liberation Army is also hostile toward the Muslim Rohingya minority, which until recently lived in the northern part of the region (vast numbers of Rohingya have been violently expelled from Burma).

Burma’s eastern Shan state posts an HDI figure lower than that of Rakhine, coming in at just over .5. The Shan state covers an upland plateau with some rugged topography and remote locales. It is not, however, a “tribal” area in general. The Shan themselves are a Tai-speaking people who also practice Theravada Buddhism. They were historically organized into small but military potent principalities. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Burma and Siam (which became Thailand) competed over gaining control of this sizable area, with Burma eventually coming out on top. In the late twentieth century, it became a focal point of the narcotics trade. For a time, the insurgent Shan State enjoyed effective independence. In the late 1900s, however, the Burmese government defeated the Shan military, made possible by its alliance with the drug-running United Wa State Army. (The Wa are a “tribal’ people living in the northern part of Shan state.). The entire region is still noted for its narcotics trade and ethnic conflicts.

*The Maldives, another South Asian country, is excluded here due to its very small population. Like Sri Lanka, it has a relatively high level of human development (HDI of .74).

** The provinces of Afghanistan have been amalgamated into larger informal regions by the data source used here.

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The Geography of Poverty and Social Development in the Philippines

As previously promised, we now turn to depictions of the Philippines made with the province-level maps of the country that are available for download on this website. Today’s post looks at poverty and the Human Development Index, whereas the forthcoming one will examine population patterns and trends.

Philippines Poverty MapThe first map, that of the incidence of poverty as defined by the Philippine government, shows several clear spatial patterns. The first is the relative lack of poverty in the greater Manila Bay region of central Luzon. The standing of this area may seem surprising, as the densely populated Manila metro urban area is characterized by grim and extensive slums and squatter communities. But as is often the case, rural poverty in the Philippines tends to be more widespread and extreme than that of the large cities, which is one of the main reasons why people continue to move to crowded urban areas. The incidence of poverty is also markedly low in Benguet province in the southern portion of the highlands of northern Luzon. Benguet is home to Baguio City, a resort area and major educational center. Many of the indigenous people of the province, moreover, are noted for their devotion to commercial vegetable farming, a profitable but environmentally damaging enterprise that I analyzed in some detail in my first book, Wagering the Land.

As the map indicates, poverty is pronounced in several widely scattered parts of the Philippines. Overall, the poorest part of the Philippines is the Muslim-majority area in the southwest, which I have therefore outlined in red. But several non-Muslim provinces on Mindanao also have high poverty rates, and in general terms the island is much poorer than Luzon. Some of the historically tribal areas of the highlands of northern Luzon are also quite poor, quite in contrast to neighboring Benguet. In the central Philippines, Samar (particularly eastern Samar), eastern Negros, and Masbate have high rates of poverty, a deeply entrenched pattern of Philippine economic geography. The Philippine government recently announced that poverty in Samar and elsewhere in the eastern Visayas has intensified in recent years, a trend linked to the tropical cyclones that have devastated this vulnerable area.

Philippines HDI MapThe map of the Human Development Index, which takes into account issues of health, longevity, and education as well those of narrower economic scope, is similar but by no means identical to the map of poverty. Here the greater Manila region again scores high. The top-ranking provinces are Manila itself and Benguet, whose identical scores of .718 are in the same general league of those of Malaysia, Russia, and Mexico. Northern Luzon in general sores high on the HDI map, with the exception of the northern provinces of the highland belt. Relatively high scores are also found in Cebu, the Iloilo area of Panay, and Misamis Oriental in northern Mindanao. According to this map, the southern “inland seas” region of the central Philippines is doing better in terms of human development than the northern “inland seas” region. The Muslim region again comes at the Philippines Inland Seas Mapbottom of the chart, with the figures for Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and Maguindanao falling in the same general category as those of Afghanistan, Malawi, and Yemen.


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The Satisfaction with Life Index

The Satisfaction with Life Index attempts to measure human happiness across the world, within the confines of national boundaries. The index is complex and highly subjective, and surely deserves further scrutiny. Taking it at face value, however, reveals some intriguing patterns. In general, “life satisfaction” correlates closely with economic and social development, as measured in the Human Development Index. A comparison of the two maps, however, shows some notable exceptions. The former Soviet countries — and the former Communist zone of Eastern and Central Europe more generally — shows lower levels of happiness than might be expected on the basis of socio-economic status. Countries with higher than expected happiness levels include Suriname, Bhutan, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Timor Leste. It is difficult to discern any patterns here, although it is notable that many island countries show high levels of satisfaction. It may also be significant that Bhutan has explicitly sought to enhance “Gross National Happiness” rather than Gross National Product. Considering the high levels of domestic violence in the Solomon Islands, I am especially skeptical about its placement on the index.


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