Which are the countries that have improved their human development indicators the most since 1970 relative to their peers? You’d be surprised, as I was, to find that the top 10 is dominated not by East Asian superstars, but by Moslem countries: Oman, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. This year’s Human Development Report is full of neat analysis and results, including this one.
Leaving aside the oil exporting countries, the North African cases are particularly interesting. As Francisco Rodriguez and Emma Samman, two of the report’s authors, note, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria have experienced remarkable gains in life expectancy and educational attainment, leaving many Asian superstars in the dust. Only Tunisia among the three is a high growth country, underlining one of the report’s main findings that economic growth and human development often diverge significantly, even over as long a time frame as 40 years.
What was their secret? Determined policies to expand educational opportunities and access to health along with a willingness to depart from the conventional wisdom of the day and experiment with their own remedies. Even though all three North African countries are Moslem, empowering of women seems to have played an important role as well:
There is now substantial evidence that the health and schooling of children can be raised by empowering women, and this is precisely what Tunisia did when it raised the minimum age for marriage, revoked the colonial ban on imports of contraceptives, instituted the first family planning programme in Africa, legalized abortion, made polygamy illegal, and gave women the right to divorce as well as the right to stand and vote for election.
What is somewhat puzzling, as Rodriguez and Samman also note, is that these countries have not made nearly as much progress in democratization.
These new “facts” substantially enrich our understanding of the development landscape over the last four decades.