Atlas of Human Development

Per Capita GDP in Nepal and the Rest of South Asia

The most recent GeoCurrents post compared Nepal with the other political units of the southern Himalayan region on the basis of the Human Development Index (HDI). Today’s post does the same in terms of per capita GDP. The map below shows the per capita GDP standings (in Purchasing Power Parity) in 2020-2021 of the independent countries of greater South Asia along with the states of India (and India’s two largest union territories). This map is problematic in that the data for the states of India and for the region’s independent countries are not completely comparable, as is explained in the map legend. But the general pattern is clear: Nepal continues to lag behind its Himalayan neighbors on this metric, just as it does in regard to the HDI. The gap between Nepal and the Indian state of Sikkim is stark, especially when one considers the close cultural and physiographic similarities of these two polities. Sikkim is actually more Nepali than Nepal, in that only 44.6 percent of the people of Nepal speak Nepali as their first language whereas 66.6% of those in Sikkim do (with only 6.9 speaking Sikkimese). It is also noteworthy that Nepal falls into the same category on this map as the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (demoted from state status in 2019). On the HDI map, Jammu and Kashmir has a significantly higher standing than Nepal. Finally, note that Pakistan scores much better in this regard than it does in terms of HDI.

The second map is limited to the states and larger union territories of India, showing their per capita GDP in PPP for 2020-2021. Here there are no problems with data comparability. What I find surprising about this map is the relatively low standing, compared to those of neighboring states, of Maharashtra and Punjab. Maharashtra is often considered to be India’s economic pacesetter, and it clearly has India’s largest GDP in total. Punjab, in earlier decades, stood near the top of the per capita GDP list of Indian states. It is interesting that Punjab has lagged behind its neighbor, Haryana. Together, these two states are the core area of India’s agricultural green revolution, and until recently they had more similar developmental indicators.

Bihar, not surprisingly, stands at the bottom of the per capita GDP list for India. Bihar comes in last place in almost every socio-economic indicator in India. I once quipped when teaching that Bihar has been described as India’s Mississippi, meaning that it is in the bottom position in almost everything. That statement deeply offended a student in the classroom from Mississippi, leading me to stop making such comparisons in the classroom.

It is also notable that the small state of Manipur in far eastern India comes in at a much lower ranking on the per capita GDP map than it does on the HDI map. Manipur, like its highland neighbors, has relatively high levels of education, which propels it into a higher overall developmental position than its economic figures alone would warrant.

In the classroom, I like to complement maps of per capita GDP with ones showing per capita income. Per capita GDP can be quite misleading, as regions that have high levels of economic output based on a few key economic sectors, such as mining, often appear much more prosperous than they really are. China’s region of Inner Mongolia exemplifies this problem. I therefore made a map of India showing per capita income based on the most recent data that I could easily find (2017-2018). As can be seen, however, this map is very similar to the 2020-2021 per capita GDP map.

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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 might 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 always 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 reached full electrification, Chad and Burundi still have electrification rates below 12 percent. 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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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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Human Development Index (HDI) Rankings in South & Central America

Compared to greater South Asia (mapped in a previous post), South & Central America has relatively high levels of human development, as well as fewer disparities between countries. The basic spatial pattern is clear: higher levels of HDI in the “Southern Cone” (Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay) and in southern Central America (Panama and Costa Rica), and lower levels in northern Central America and Guyana. Venezuela still has a moderately high ranking, but it has been dropping, declining from 0.777 in 2013 to 0.711 in 2019. Venezuela is mapped here in the same category as Bolivia and Paraguay, whereas until recently in had a comfortable lead over both countries. Presumable, this downward trajectory continues.

 

Owing to the relatively small HDI gaps among countries in this region, I have revised the initial map by making a finer level of distinction. The same general patterns hold, although here Venezuela drops into a category below that of Paraguay. On this map, unlike the preceding one, Argentina and Chile fall into the same slot, as their HDI figures are very close (0.845 for Argentina and 0.851 in Chile in 2019).

 

 

 

As Brazil is roughly the same size as the rest of South America, it is useful to break it down into its constituent states. As can be seen on this map, Brazilian HDI levels are higher than average in the far south (Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina) and southeast (Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states), and lower in the north. But the disparities in these numbers across Brazil are much lower than they had previously been, as is evident in the final map posted here. This map also shows major human developmental gains across the country in the first nineteen years of the century. A similar trend is holds for almost all countries of the region. But while Latin America has experienced major strides in human development, its economic growth has stalled out over the past decade, resulting in massive dissatisfaction and a strong turn against incumbents in political contests.

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South Asia’s Human Development Progress

One of my take-home messages for college geography students is that the world is probably both in worse shape and in better shape than they realize: in the geopolitical context of war and conflict, conditions are worse than might be expected from a casual reading of the news, whereas in regard to human development they are considerably better. Over almost all of the world, Human Development Index (HDI) scores have increased over the past thirty years, and in most places they have done so to a significant degree.

Greater South Asia has seen particularly large increases in human development, as is made clear by looking at the paired maps posted here. Not just every country in the region, but almost every major political subdivision has seen major gains in health, education, and average income. But it is also evident that regional HDI disparities have increased in the same period. Some places have made far greater gains than others.

 

In the regional map of HDI levels in 1990, three Indian states have anomalously high figures in 1990 – almost as high as their 2019 figures: Uttarakhand, in the north, Telangana in the center, and Jharkhand in the northeast.  Significantly, none was a state in 1990. At that time, all belonged to other states (Uttarakhand was then part of Uttar Pradesh, Telangana was part of Andhra Pradesh, and Jharkhand was part of Bihar). I suspect that statistical irregularities play a role in these surprising figures.

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Human Development Discrepancies in (Greater) Punjab

Today’s post examines an interesting human developmental disparity in South Asia: that of the Punjab. When British India was partitioned into Pakistan and (independent) India in 1947, so too was the Punjab, an agriculturally productive cultural region that was united by language and culture but divided by religion (between Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities). Partition in Punjab was a horrifically violent process, but the region soon began to experience economic growth and social development. Such developments, however, proceeded at a much faster pace in the Indian state of Punjab than in the Pakistani province of the same name. As can be seen on the map posted here, the HDI ranking of Indian Punjab is now significantly ahead of that of Pakistani Punjab.

As Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous and economically productive province, its low HDI figure depresses the developmental standing of the country as a whole. Considering the many similarities of the two Punjabs, it also indicates problems with Pakistan’s governance. Simply put, a much better record in human development has been achieved in India. It might be tempting to argue that this is a matter of religion, as Pakistani Punjab is almost entirely Muslim whereas Indian Punjab has a Sikh majority and a large Hindi minority. But Muslim Bangladesh, once widely regarded as South Asia’s economic and social “basket case,” has also achieved a higher HDI level than Pakistan’s Punjab.

But it must also be noted that the southern half of Pakistan’s Punjab is not exactly “Punjabi,” at least in linguistic terms. Its local language, Saraiki, was once regarded as merely a Punjabi dialect, but it has now been given status as a separate language. The Saraiki-speaking parts of Pakistan’s Punjab are much poorer and less developed than the province’s Punjabi-speaking areas. Most of Pakistan’s districts that post relatively high HDI figures are located in northern (Punjabi-speaking) Punjab.

 

It also interesting that all of the Indian states of the former Province of Punjab under the British Raj now have relative high levels of human development, regardless of their language and culture. After Indian independence, the non-Punjabi-speaking (mostly Hindi-speaking) areas of this province were hived off as the separate states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. All have done quite well. It is also interesting that all of these areas, on both sides of the international border, constituted the Sikh Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century

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Areas of Relatively High Human Development in Greater South Asia

Today’s post continues the GeoCurrents series on the Human Development Index (HDI), focusing initially on greater South Asia. Here we look at areas with relatively high HDI figures.

For decades, the region’s highest human development levels have been found in the far south and southwest, specifically in the Indian states of Kerala and Goa and in Sri Lanka. All invested heavily in health and education, reaping substantial rewards. For decades, Kerala was well ahead of the rest of India, especially in female literacy. This patterns partly reflects the region’s social structure, which has long been less male dominated than most of the rest of India.

Sri Lanka has also long outpaced other parts of South Asia, but its edge has been steadily slipping. In 1990, Sri Lanka posted an HDI figure of .629, substantially ahead of Goa’s .552 and Kerala’s .544, and well ahead of Tamil Nadu’s .471. By 2019, Sri Lanka has advanced to .782, but it was now behind Kerala’s .790 and just ahead of Goa’s .761. At the time, Tamil Nadu’s HDI figure had surged to .708. Give Sri Lanka’s current political crisis and economic meltdown, it would not be surprising to see Tamil Nadu and several other Indian states overtake it in the next few years.

 

 

In northern India, the adjacent states of Punjab and Haryana, along with the National Capital Territory of New Delhi, exhibit relatively high HDI numbers, and have done so for decades. These two states are at the center of India’s agricultural “green revolution,” and are the site of substantial agro-industrial economic growth. Although neither Punjab nor Haryana top of the list agricultural production by Indian state, their relative productivity becomes apparent when population is factored in (see the chart posted here). These two states were also the hub of the massive 2020-2021 farmer protest movement that roiled India and caused its government to backtrack on planned prom-market agricultural reforms.

 

 

The neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh also exhibits a relatively high HDI figure, but the factors behind its development are distinctive. Whereas Punjab and Haryana are lowland states with fertile soils, Himachal Pradesh is a land of rugged topography, located in the Himalayan mountains and foothills. Its developmental ascent, moreover, has been much more recent. Through the 1960s, its indicators remained relatively low. A World Bank report credits its transformation on effective and non-corrupt political leadership, female empowerment, and mass electrification based on hydropower. Intriguingly, the population of Himachal Pradesh is overwhelmingly rural, with the state posting one of India’s lowest urbanization rates. In general, both in India and the world at large, low urbanization correlates with low social and economic development. This seeming paradox has received relatively little attention, and as a result it will be the subject of a future GeoCurrents post.

 

 

Higher than average HDI figures are posted across greater southwestern India. This large region has been the site of most of India’s recent industrial and financial expansion. As the next map shows, it is also contains almost all of India’s major tech hubs.

 

 

 

 

 

A far different situation is found in India’s far northeastern periphery. This is another rugged area that was long noted for its relative isolation, poorly developed infrastructure, and numerous ethnic insurgencies. Yet its human development indicators are now well above the average for the country. Many of the so-called tribal peoples of this region converted from animism to Christianity under the influence of missionaries during the colonial period, and three of its states (Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya) now have solid Christian (mostly Protestant) majorities. Missionaries stressed education, resulting in mass literacy. Women also have a relatively high social position in these societies, which are more culturally related to those of Southeast Asia than they are to those of South Asia. Recent infrastructural initiatives by the Indian and local governments, especially in electrification and road construction, have significantly improved economic conditions.

 

In neighboring Burma, several rugged and so-called tribal regions with Christian majorities or large minorities also post higher than expected HDI figures.

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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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GeoCurrents Summer Schedule

GeoCurrents returns to publication this week. New posts are planned for each weekday going forward. Two themes will command our attention for the remainder of this summer. One is a GeoCurrents atlas of global human development, which will entail original maps based on the UN’s Human Development Index. Today’s post gives an indication of what this atlas will look like. Posts on this topic will alternate irregularly with ones derived from a much larger project that I have been working on since GeoCurrents went into suspension in 2016. This project, called Seduced by the Map: How the Nation-State Model Prevents Us from Thinking Clearly About the World, will be explained and outlined in tomorrow’s post. Starting in late September, GeoCurrents will turn its attention to current global events. These posts will be done in conjunction with a Stanford Continuing Studies (adult education) class that I will be teaching remotely in the Fall Quarter called “The History and Geography of Current Global Events.”

The Human Development Index (HDI), created by the United Nations, is described by the Wikipedia as “a statistic composite index of life expectancy, education (mean years of schooling completed and expected years of schooling upon entering the education system), and per capita income indicator, which are used to rank countries into four tiers of human development.” The information used on most of the HDI maps that I will be posting is from 2019, most recent year in which comprehensive global data is available. The HDI, like other development indicators, is far from perfect and the data used to construct it are not always reliable. But it is the most referenced measurement of global human development, and it can be used to make maps at the subnational level across the world.

The maps that will posted ignore the UN’s four-tier scheme of “very high, high, medium, and low” social development, instead arraying countries into a larger number of categories. These maps also break down large countries into their first-order division (provinces, states, etc.) to convey regional variation more finely. Many of these maps are based on unconventional world regions, such as the South China Sea region and Greater Central Asia.

The two maps posted today, showing human development levels in the core part of North America, give an indication of how the atlas will look. The first map shows HDI levels in independent countries. The pattern seen here is simple: The United States and Canada are at the top, slotted into the same high-level category. In 2019, these two countries had almost identical HDI figures, with Canada coming in at .929 (15th highest in the world) and the United States coming in at .926 (16th highest). Mexico was rated significantly lower, at .779, but that figure still puts it in the UN’s “high social development” category. Northern Central America is shown to be significantly lower, and Haiti much lower still. Honduras posts the lowest figure in Central America, coming in at .634. This puts it in the U.N.’s “medium human development” category.

On this map, only Haiti, with a figure .510, is slotted in the “low human development” category. Elsewhere in the world, however, much lower figures are found. According to official statistics, three African countries, Niger, Central African Republic, and Chad, come in at below .40. Somalia probably has a significantly lower figure, but it is excluded from most tabulations for having unreliable or unavailable data. One Wikipedia article, however, places Somalia at only .361, giving an appalling low number of .232 for its Middle Juba region.

When the larger countries in this part of the world are broken down into their main political subdivisions, a somewhat different picture emerges. The United States is shown to be slightly more regionally differentiated than Canada, with three states (Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut) posting figures above .95. Only three independent countries, Norway, Ireland, and Switzerland, fall into this exceptionally high category. Several southern U.S. states post figures below .90, as do two Canadian provinces in the Atlantic maritime region (Newfoundland and New Brunswick). Neighboring Nova Scotia just misses this category, with a figure of .903.

This map also shows relatively wide levels of differentiation across Mexico, with much higher HDI figures found in the north and much lower one in the south. Although the U.S.-Mexico border is easily visible in this map, the Mexico-Central America border disappears. The heavily indigenous southern Mexican state of Chiapas, with an HDI figure of .698, falls into the same category as neighboring Guatemala (at .663).

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