Living conditions in the world : inequalities are on the decline

87 % of the world population has access to drinking water. Life expectancy has increased by 21 years since the 1950s. 87% of children are in primary school. The living conditions have improved in the world, but the poorest countries are still staying behind.

- This article has been published in French on the website of Observatoire des inégalités, April 12th 2011. Translated by Rita Stadtfeld.

The inequalities between the populations of rich and poor countries cannot be reduced to differentials in income. They also apply to very different living conditions, in particular concerning the access to fundamental goods (drinking water, food, health care, education …). Although much still has to be done to permit all individuals decent living conditions, the inequalities of accessing these goods seem to decline.

Poor populations have a better access to drinking water

In 2008, 87 % of the world population, thus 5.9 billion people, had access to drinking water, against 77 % in 1990 (4 billion people). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a little less than 880 million individuals still do not have access to this vital good. In 1990 this number was at 1.3 billion. In the poorest countries the situation is only changing slowly however. For developing countries as a whole the rate has gone from 71 to 84 % between 1990 and 2008 and in Sub-Saharan Africa in went from 49 to 60 %. In the latter an additional 237 million people benefit from drinking water access. Further to that, the continental scale also shows great disparities, especially between rural and urban areas.

The number of undernourished people increases

Concerning food supply only a slow improvement can be observed. According to the United Nations, the proportion of undernourished [1] individuals has only decreased slightly within 15 years, going from 16 % at the beginning of the 1990s to 13 % in 2006. In total, the number of undernourished persons has risen from 845 to 873 million within this period. According to the international organization, this number has probably passed a billion in 2009, due to the worldwide economic crisis.

Also here the situation is different, depending on the region studied. In developed countries, undernourishment has basically disappeared, although it is believed that 15 million people are still plagued by it. In developing countries as a whole the rate reaches 16 % and even 30 % in Africa. The proportion of undernourished persons is decreasing slowly, going down from 20 % to 16 % between 1990 and 2006 : it must be noted that these countries are confronted with a very strong growth of their population.

Life expectancy, the mirror of living conditions

Life expectancy is also growing in the world. It reaches 67.6 years (both men and women), against 46.6 years at the beginning of the 1950s. Developing countries are also following this evolution. In their case, life expectancy has gone from 41.7 to 67.7 years within that period, and from 36.4 to 55.9 years in the poorest countries. In the poorest countries the progress is only very slow however. In Sub-Saharan Africa, life expectancy has gone up from 37.8 to 48.3 years between the early 1950s and early 1980s and has gained only 3 years since. Life expectancy in the poorest countries corresponds today to the one of the richest countries…before the 1950s. And in Sub-Saharan Africa it is situated at the level of France…before the first world war.

An unequal access to education

The access to education is also improving. Between 1999 and 2007, the proportion of children enrolled in primary school has gone from 82 to 87 %, for secondary school it went from 53 % to 59 %. Again, Sub-Saharan Africa is staying behind, with only 73 % of children in primary and 27 % in secondary school. But it is the region that has shown the greatest progress concerning primary education within this period (+17 points). Educational systems are put under a strong demographic pressure : for one thing, the improvement of school access has lead to an increase of pupils per class and a decreased quality of teaching, as reports Unesco. Finally one must not forget that despite this progress no less than 72 million children are not attending school, among which can be found 68 million in the poorest countries.

The HDI, a global index on living conditions

When considering the above-mentioned indicators and adding the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, namely a unity measuring the wealth of individuals, one ends up with an aggregated indicator : the Human Development Index (HDI). Rated between 0 and 1, the HDI gathers data concerning life expectancy, school enrolment and literacy rate and the GDP per capita. The closer it is to 1 the higher is the human development in that region.

For the whole world, the index was at 0.624 in 2010, against 0.570 in 2000. Since the creation of the index, human development as been increasing continuously everywhere. Today, the worst index, situated at 0.389, can be observed in Sub-Saharan Africa, while the richest countries obtain 0.879. The regions where the HDI was lowest are slowly reducing the gap to the rich countries, which already started at a very high level. Within 10 years the HDI in the OECD-countries has gone from 0.852 to 0.879, while in Sub-Saharan Africa it has gone from 0.332 to 0.389. In south Asia the index has gone from 0.440 to 0.516 in the same period.


As a whole, the evolution of the worldwide situation is positive. The number of people without access to fundamental goods is decreasing. However the gaps are still very great. Although the rich world has generally achieved to standardize the access to water, food and education, this is still far from being the case for the whole planet. While the populations of rich countries are concerned – and rightly so – about the survival of their social protection systems, the populations of poor countries are still far from being able to benefit from such protection.

In addition, the figures should be refined by country, or better, by territory. In many areas, wars, disorganization of economic structures or the hoarding of wealth by a small elite, prevents the access of a greater number to the vital minimum, although the better off are becoming more wealthy and are consuming more and more. Finally one should also take notice of how inequalities are changing within each country, in the poorest as well as the richest countries : an average improvement may conceal a deterioration of certain marginalized groups in the population.


[1Undernourishment refers to the condition of people whose dietary energy consumption is continuously below a minimum dietary energy requirement for carrying out a light physical activity and maintaining a minimum acceptable weight. They vary according to country and from one year to another and differ according to the gender and age of the population.

Photo : United Nations Development Program (Marielle van Uitert)


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Thèmes : • Education • Conditions de vie


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