The Human Development Index for Pakistan – HDI shows a country that is, predictably, unequal and divided

If the purpose of development is to improve the wellbeing of people, then it seems logical to think of it as a measure of the response to the question, “How are you?” Yet, it is unlikely that citizens anywhere will respond to that question by telling you the prevailing rate of inflation, the Gini coefficient, or even their national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). They are much more likely to respond with information about their health, perhaps details of a recent bout with sickness; about wealth, possibly news about getting a job or buying a house; or about knowledge, maybe a movie they saw, a song they heard, or a book they read.

Unlike conventional measures of development, which rely principally on the growth of the economy, the idea of ‘human development’ is based on this notion of individual wellbeing as measured by three essential elements: health, wealth and knowledge. The Pakistan National Human Development Report, recently launched by UNDP-Pakistan and for which I was the co-lead author along with Dr Faisal Bari, presents a profile of human development in Pakistan over the last decade by constructing a national Human Development Index (HDI) and measuring it for every district in the four main provinces and for Fata, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Global Human Development Reports, which include country-level HDI rankings, have been produced by the United Nations each year since 1990, when the concept was first introduced by Pakistani economist Dr Mahbubul Haq. Many countries now regularly produce national reports, some with national indices and usually focusing on a specific theme. Ours was only the second such report to be released for Pakistan and came after a 15-year hiatus. While the focus of the report was human development from the lens of youth (findings on which were published in Eos two weeks ago ), the report also produced a national HDI based on global concepts but adapted for local data availability and relevance. In order to get context, our district-by-district HDI was calculated at two-year intervals over a decade-long period (for 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015).

The UNDP’s human development index for Pakistan shows a country that is, predictably, unequal and divided. But more interesting are the trends…

The results are not really surprising, but they are thought-provoking. Two, in particular, are worth highlighting. First, in terms of human development — as in every other way — Pakistan is an extremely unequal and divided country. The chasm between our most and least developed regions is not just great, it is obscene. Second, while the entitlements of some and the depravations of many regions may seem permanent, in fact, they are not. Investments in human development can, and do, make a difference. Local-level HDI can, and does, change even over relatively short periods of time. And policy impacts can be, and sometimes are, more evident and effective at the district level than at provincial scales.


At first blush, Pakistan’s district-level HDI map (2015 data) is all too familiar. Vast tracts of Balochistan are shaded red and orange (bad). Much of Punjab is shaded green (better and good), although southern Punjab is mostly yellow (struggling). The contrast around Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is more stark, with lighter greens speckled with orange and red. Sindh, too, has contrast, but much more yellow and orange. The darkest greens (specifying the highest HDIs) are all in districts with major urban centres — Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Sialkot, Jhelum. All districts with large cities do better on the index, but not all do equally well: none of Hyderabad, Quetta, Peshawar, Multan or even Faisalabad are classified as high HDI, although all of them are in the ‘high medium’ category. (Note: National HDI categories or scores are not comparable to global ones.)

But the map is designed to yield more analytical nuance upon closer examination. We chose to increase the sub-categories to six (instead of the four in the global index) and space them out to pronounce differences between districts. The country does not become any less unequal or divided because of this, but the gradations of inequity and division do become more evident.

For example, one can now ask the question of why proximity to the provincial capital, Quetta, seems to improve human development in Pishin and Mastung, but not in Killa Abdullah and Harnai? Or why Upper Dir, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is stuck in the low HDI category on our scale even though each one of its neighbouring districts (Chitral, Swat, Lower Dir) have graduated two steps to the medium HDI category? Or why all the best performing districts in Punjab are in its north, and all its worst performing ones in its south and west.

Note: For Gilgit-Baltistan and AJ&K, due to unavailability of PSLM microdata for the year 2014/15, data for the year 2012/13 is used instead. For FATA, calculations are based on the FDIHS 2013/14 micro data. | All data and images courtesy Pakistan National Human Development Report

The answers in each case may be different — although they nearly always relate to different investments made in health, education and livelihoods availability — but asking the question allows the policy choices to become more local and highlights the often-ignored interprovincial inequities. Local decision-makers — political or bureaucratic — should be asking, for example, why Naushehro Feroze in Sindh fares better on the HDI than its neighbouring Jamshoro and Nawabshah/Shaheed Benazirabad districts. The answer, the HDI tells us, is better education opportunities in Naushero Feroze.

The deeper divisions, however, are much more ingrained. Lahore is about 1,000 kilometres from Awaran, in Balochistan, but it might as well be a planet away in terms of human development. On a scale of 0 to 1, Lahore scores 0.877 on our HDI and is the highest performing district in Pakistan. Awaran, at 0.173, is the lowest. Here are some reasons why: in Lahore district 4.3 percent of the population experiences multidimensional poverty, in Awaran 77.2 percent do; in Lahore the expected years of schooling for both boys and girls is more than 12, in Awaran it is 3.5 years for girls and 7.5 for boys; in Lahore nearly all women receive prenatal care of some form, in Awaran only half do.

The development distance between Karachi (0.854 HDI) and Kohistan (0.229) or Jhelum (0.829) and Jhal Magsi (0.183) are equally overwhelming. But the real distance is regional — and no part of Pakistan is more developmentally distant from Pakistan than Balochistan is: of the 15 districts in our ‘very low human development’ category, all but three — Tor Ghar and Kohistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Tharparkar in Sindh — are in Balochistan (as is Fata as a region). Quetta is the only district in Balochistan in the medium human development category and the next two best performing districts in the province, Pishin (0.482 HDI) and Mastung (0.459), are both worse off in terms of HDI than Punjab’s worst performing district, Rajanpur (0.506).


Ingrained as many of these inequities are, our temporal analysis over a 10-year period (2005-2015) suggests that it need not be permanent. While some movements on the HDI can be because of statistical quirks or new data, for the most part, investments in health, education and livelihoods translate into better HDI performance at a fairly quick pace.

An analysis of how the four provinces have fared on the index over this decade suggests that Punjab has maintained a steady clip, moving from 0.583 (low medium) on the human development index in 2005 to reaching 0.732 (high medium) by 2015. Sindh, on the other hand, has fared less impressively — in 2005 it stood nearer to Punjab, at 0.559 (low medium), but by 2015 it reached only 0.620 (medium). Meanwhile, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has taken good advantage of this. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s HDI was 0.463 (low medium) in 2005, well below Sindh’s, but by 2015 it was nearly at par with an HDI score of 0.628. Balochistan, inched out of the very low HDI status it had in 2005 (0.294) to the low HDI status (0.421), but with very little momentum.

A interesting indicator is that, of the 10 districts that showed the least improvement in ranking in this 10-year period, six were in Sindh (Tharparkar, Shikarpur, Mirpurkhas, Ghotki, Badin, Sukkur) and the remaining four in Balochistan (Quetta, Killa Abdullah, Ziarat, Jhal Magsi). On the other hand, of 10 districts showing the most improved ranking, four were in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Malakand, Chitral, Mansehra, Charsadda) and three in Punjab (Okara, Khushab, Lodhran). An analysis of the district-by-district movement on the HDI over the decade only confirms this trend. Of the 24 districts in Sindh, only two (Dadu, Larkana) improved their ranking in the 2005-2015 period. Of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s 25 districts, as many as 11 moved up (Abbottabad, Buner, Charsadda, Chitral, Haripur, Karak, Lakki Marwat, Malakand, Mansehra, Mardan, Peshawar).

Development is not, and must not be turned into, a horse race. It is not our intention for the Pakistan HDI to be used thus. In the best of worlds, policymakers responsible for each district — local and provincial politicians and officials — would look at their own performance and ask how it can be made better. Maybe, look around at others for ideas on what might also work for them. For the most part, given the way how human development and the HDI, is conceptualised, the answer will nearly always be the same: invest in education, in health, in livelihoods.

The writer is the founding Dean of the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University. He tweets @AdilNajam

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 13th, 2018

Related:  TO BE YOUNG IN PAKISTAN – Research by Dr. Adil Najam :