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A Reality Check on UK's Recovery: The UN's Human Development Report 2014.

05/08/2014 16:05 BST | Updated 05/10/2014 10:59 BST

We are often assured that the UK economy is healing, GDP growth recovering, the recession past. These comforting phrases are the daily defence of four years of austerity and counting.

The 2014 Human Development Report (HDR) "Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience", released last week by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), provides a more challenging perspective. Instead of the country's economy, the report focuses on its people - their wellbeing, capacities, and ability to make choices. It exposes as well their vulnerabilities, which, in the UK as in many parts of the world, have been increasing.

On the report's Human Development Index (HDI, a measure of life expectancy, education and income that ranks 187 countries), the UK topples from the top six to 14th place - behind Sweden and Ireland. Norway comes first, followed by Australia, Switzerland and the Netherlands, with the USA fifth and Germany sixth.

The UK is slipping in human terms as well. Its progress in HDI values since 2000 is the slowest of all but five other countries in the world. Life expectancy, for instance, is now 80.5 years, 23rd on the list. New Zealand and Ireland achieve higher standing in human development with substantially lower incomes.

Other rankings are equally worrying. The UK leads income inequality in Europe along with Italy and Estonia. Our adolescent birth rate is 26 per thousand, three times that of most European countries. Expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP is 14th on the list, well behind Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. Expenditure on education is also comparatively low - a paltry six percent of GDP, 18th on the list and well behind the Nordics.

And what of the economy? UK investment in capital formation as a share of GDP is 24th among developed countries. Research and development expenditure is 1.8 percent of GDP, 16th on the list and under two-thirds the proportions in Germany. Our share of energy from renewable resources is near the bottom of the European list - 14.4 percent compared with 70 percent in Sweden and 20 percent in Germany. Other European countries also have higher rates of tax revenues and government expenditures as a share of GDP, belying the view that the UK economy can recover only if tax and public expenditures are cut further.

Vulnerabilities over the life cycle are a major theme of the report. Setbacks in early life are linked to consequences in adulthood and in older age, affecting, for instance, the chances of holding down a job or retiring comfortably. The evidence for such links is clear, yet in most countries - Britain included - public expenditure to support the first 1000 days of life is underfunded. At the other end of the life cycle, the world's over-60 population is expected to double by 2050, yet four-fifths have no pension. The poverty rate among older groups is higher in most OECD countries - including the UK - than for the population as a whole, and higher for women than for men.

As the share of zero-hour contracts and other forms of non-standard employment has increased, so has vulnerability. The report shows that the UK records a higher rate of employment than most other countries - but also a bigger increase in the share of non-standard employment.

So what can be done? The report identifies actions at three levels -individual, national and international.

Reducing vulnerability requires empowerment and fewer restrictions on an individual's freedom to act. Wellbeing is greatly influenced by the context of the larger freedoms that people enjoy - and their ability to act in coping with adverse events and circumstances.

Action by national institutions is also needed to provide support for individuals and their families and households, especially at critical transition points in life. To be effective, such action depends on maintaining a balance between individuals, community support and the state, local and national. This balance is all the more difficult to maintain when, as the report brings out, the UK's government and social expenditure as a share of GNP is already lower than in many other developed countries.

International initiatives are also required. The economist Joseph Stiglitz, in a contribution to the report, shows how the IMF and the World Bank have often pressured countries into adopting policies that increased vulnerabilities - cutting back social protection and commitments in education and health in favour of policies that have allowed inequalities to soar. The realities outlined by the 2014 HDR stand as a rebuke to the apologists for austerity. More than this, they offer a vision of an alternative course for reducing poverty and vulnerabilities, as an example of the humane global governance needed in the 21st century.

By Richard Jolly, Institute of Development Studies

Richard Jolly was Principal Coordinator of the HDR from 1996-2000