Life expectancy, education and wealth: What's changed and for who in the last two years?
September 19, 2022
A closer look at the numbers that make up the Human Development Index (HDI) reveals a more detailed look at the impact of Covid-19 in Africa.

In its 2022 Human Development Report, the United National Development Program (UNDP) raised a warning that the years of the COVID-19 pandemic had increased inequality, created uncertainty, and seen the first ever fall in the Human Development Index (HDI), which makes up the report’s core, in its history. The HDI combines measurements of health, wealth and education to provide an index of country wellbeing that is broader than the commonly used Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Between 2019 and 2021, 40 African countries saw their indicators drop. In a previous article, we showed that discrepancies between female and male persons exist for certain countries included in the UNDP’s HDI rankings. Although the creators of the HDI recognise such discrepancies, changes in the score mask underlying trends. If, for example, Life Expectancy drops in a country, while Gross National Income (GNI) per capita rises, the index may stay the same. Likewise if conditions get notably worse for women, but better for men, the HDI might show a misleading stasis.

Unpicking the Human Development Index

Previously, we wrote about the top risers and fallers in the HDI rankings and their aggregated index score. The chart below shows the top five ‘risers’ and ‘fallers’ for African countries, represented as the percentage change in overall HDI, from 2019 to 2021. The greatest improvement was seen in Togo, with a 0.78% increase in its index score. Namibia, on the other hand, experienced a decrease of 3.77% during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two obvious questions that come up are:

  1. What influenced these changes?
  2. What do they mean in real terms?

Recalling that the HDI is “a composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development — a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living”, Togo’s increased human development stems from overall Life Expectancy going up by 0.7 years between 2019 and 2021, and Gross National Income (GNI) per capita by $38.21.

Namibia’s drop in human development, on the other hand, is due to overall Life Expectancy dropping by 3.8 years, and GNI per capita dropping by a whopping $932.21.

The different experiences for female and male populations

Included in the Human Development Report are tables that breakdown index scores even further, into sex disaggregated data. Do Togo and Namibia’s female and male populations experience these changes in the same way? No, they do not! Just as we saw in previous iterations of the HDR, it’s important to look at these underlying numbers because they reveal different patterns in the data for men and women.

Looking at the chart below, Togo’s female population experienced a higher increase in Life Expectancy than its male population (+1 year versus +0.4 years). In addition, female Life Expectancy remained higher than male Life Expectancy in 2021 (by 1.6 years). On the other hand, Togo’s male population experienced a higher increase in GNI per capita than its female population (+$47.32 versus +$28.81). Male GNI per capita remained higher than female GNI per capita in 2021 (by $561.17). So, although Life Expectancy and GNI per capita both increased for Togo’s female and male populations during COVID-19, the gaps between the sexes in both indicators actually grew.

In Namibia, meanwhile, the male population experienced a slightly bigger drop in Life Expectancy than the female population (-3.7 years versus -3.6 years). In terms of GNI per capita, Namibia’s male population experienced a greater drop than its female population (-$1,037.65 versus -$832.61). In other words, the gap between the sexes grew in terms of life expectancy but shrank in terms of income. Despite this, Namibia’s male GNI per capita remained higher in 2021 (by a staggering $2,823.61).

Although it is clear from the charts above that Togo and Namibia’s female and male populations experienced the changes between 2019 and 2021 differently, the sex disaggregated data followed the overall data’s trend — meaning that, when the overall change was positive, so was the associated female and male changes (and vice versa). What about countries where the overall HDI goes up (or down), but one or more of the sex disaggregated HDIs does the opposite? A few such cases do exist, most notably Senegal, where the overall and male HDIs both decreased from 2019 to 2021, but increased for its female population (from 0.463 to 0.475). Why is this?

The chart above shows us that Senegal’s female population experienced a bigger drop in Life Expectancy than its male population (-1.7 years versus -1.1 years). As with Togo and Namibia, however, Senegal’s female Life Expectancy remained higher in 2021 (by 4.5 years). In terms of Expected Years of Schooling, Senegal’s female population experienced a slightly bigger increase than its male population (+0.2 years versus +0.1 years).

The biggest difference, however, lies with GNI per capita — while Senegal’s male population experienced a drop of $394.72 between 2019 and 2021, its female population experienced an increase of $530.24.

That said, GNI per capita remained higher for Namibia’s male population in 2021, compared to its female population (by $2,209.56!). What does all of this mean in simple terms? Changes in overall HDI can obscure the very different experiences that female and male populations have. Although Senegal’s female population experienced a drop in Life Expectancy, the significant increase in GNI per capita resulted in the female HDI actually increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is also true in Nigeria — where the GNI per capita for its female population increased by $397.46 from 2019 to 2021, but dropped by $749.12 for the opposite sex.

Other countries where the female and male HDI changed, but in opposite directions, include Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Tanzania.

Looking ahead

As a final observation, it may be true that the impact of the pandemic on years in education seems to be almost nothing, but we know that this is not true. Although newly born children can expect to spend the same number of years in education as those born before the pandemic, the impact of lost time at school and reduced quality of education will only be felt years down the line. In the end, the HDI is an improvement on more economic measures of development (such as GDP). However, it has to be understood in context. Taking a country’s overall HDI as the sole measure of its population’s development still overlooks the very different realities that different people in different places experience.

The data shown in this post can be accessed here.

Explore the sex disaggregated HDI Indicators for other African countries using the interactive visualisation below.

This is the fourth in a series of articles about the Human Development Index, produced around the launch of the 2022 report on 8 September. You can read part three here.

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