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World Human Development: 1870–2007


  • Note: I am grateful to Angus Deaton, Claude Diebolt, James Fenske, Branko Milanovic, and Jeff Williamson for their comments, as well as to participants at the London School of Economics, Imperial College, and Oxford University seminars, the Conference “Wellbeing and inequality in the long run: measurement, history, and ideas,” Fundación Ramón Areces-Universidad Carlos III (Madrid, May 2012), EHES VII Summer School (Madrid, July 2012), the World Economic History Congress Presidential Session (Stellenbosch, July 2012), the 9th BETA-Workshop in Historical Economics (Strasbourg, May 2013), and the 10th European Historical Economics Conference (London, September 2013). I also thank Alexander Apostolides, Pablo Astorga, Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Salomon Kalmanovitz, Alfonso Herranz-Loncán, and Bruno Seminario who kindly shared their unpublished data. Financial support from Fundación Rafael del Pino's “Economic Freedom and Wellbeing in History” research project and the HI-POD Project, Seventh Research Framework Programme Contract No. 225342, is acknowledged. The usual disclaimer applies.


How has wellbeing evolved over time and across regions? How does the West compare to the Rest? What explains their differences? These questions are addressed using a historical index of human development. A sustained improvement in world wellbeing has taken place since 1870. The absolute gap between OECD and the Rest widened over time, but an incomplete catching up—largely explained by education—occurred between 1913 and 1970. As the health transition was achieved in the Rest, the contribution of life expectancy to human development improvement declined and the Rest fell behind in terms of longevity. Meanwhile, in the OECD, as longevity increased, healthy years expanded. A large variance in human development is noticeable in the Rest since 1970, with East Asia, Latin America, and North Africa catching up to the OECD, and Central and Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa falling behind.