Social Development Indicators Factsheet

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Standards of living are difficult to measure, but indicators of social development are available. A basic measure, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, is the value of all goods and services produced within a region over a given time period, averaged per person. A more advanced metric, the Human Development Index (HDI), considers life expectancy, education, and GDP. The three highest HDI-ranked countries in the world are Norway, Switzerland, and Australia.1 Many of the indicators discussed below are used to measure progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), a set of targets agreed upon by United Nations member states as crucial for global human progress.


  • The 2019 U.S. population is 329 million and world population is over 7 billion.
  • Global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, with 6.7 billion people living in urban areas—a 68% increase from 2015.3
  • Significant issues affecting population, as reported by governments around the world in 2007, include HIV/AIDS, infant and child mortality, maternal mortality, adolescent fertility, and life expectancy at birth.4
  • Fertility rate, or number of births per woman (of child-bearing age), is projected to fall from a global average of 2.5 in 2019 to 1.9 by 2100. Currently, Niger has the highest fertility rate at 7.0; the U.S. fertility rate is 1.8.5
  • Life expectancy averages 65 years in Least Developed Countries (LDC);  life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is 79 years.6
  • Globally, contraceptive use is increasing. Currently, contraceptive use is 3.8 times higher today when compared to 1970 and is 32 times higher in least developed countries.7 However, 20-40% of women of reproductive age still don’t have access to contraceptives in 50 countries.8
  • The population of sub-Saharan Africa is growing rapidly and may grow to over 3 billion people by 2100.5

World Population, Urban and Rural, 1950-20503

World Population, Urban and Rural, 1950-2050

Standard of Living

  • In 2015, 0.73 billion people lived below the world poverty line of $1.90 USD per day, down from 1.9 billion in 1990.9
  • According to the Gini Index, Iceland, Slovenia, and Norway have among the most equal income distributions in the world. With a rating of 41.5, there are over 90 highly developed countries with more even income distribution than the US.1
  • In 2017, 12.3% of the U.S. population—39.7 million people—were living in poverty (income under $24,858 for a family of 4 with 2 children). For Hispanic and Black populations in the U.S., approximately 20% of each group was living below the poverty line.10 
  • More than 550,000 people were homeless in the U.S. in 2018.11


  • Average consumer expenditures on food ranges from 15% in developed countries to 25% in developing countries in 2016. On average, Americans spend less than 7%, while Nigerians spend 59%.13,14
  • Globally, 45% of deaths of children under 5 are caused by under-nutrition.15
  • The Green Revolution led to large increases in agricultural yields and helped feed the rapidly growing global population in the second half of the 20th century. Sub-Saharan Africa was the only developing region where increased food production was primarily due to increased crop area, not crop yield.16
  • The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization publishes a comprehensive set of food security statistics annually.17

Fraction of Population Undernourished, 201512​

Figure_2_Fraction of Population Undernourished, 2015.

Water and Sanitation

  • Approximately 2.3 billion people lack access to proper sanitation. Access is lowest in sub-Saharan Africa, where only one in three people have proper facilities. Worldwide, urban areas have better sanitation coverage—83% have access to proper facilities, compared to 50% in rural areas.19
  • In 2015, 89% of the world population had access to an improved drinking-water source within a round trip of 30 minutes to collect water; 71% of the world population had access to clean drinking water. However, in Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa only 40% and 43% of the rural populations, respectively, have access to improved water resources.19
  • Only one quarter of people in the Least Developed Countries have access to basic hygiene (soap and water).19

​​Deaths from Unsafe Water and Sanitation, 201618

Deaths from Unsafe Water and Sanitation, 2016

Healthcare and Disease

  • Globally, 37 million people were infected with HIV and 940,000 died from AIDS in 2017. Most cases—19.6 million—are in eastern and southern Africa. Globally, the number of new infections declined by 47% between 1996 and 2016; though, new infections doubled in northern Africa, eastern Europe, and central Asia.20
  • Diarrheal diseases killed 810,000 people from 90 different countries in 2012 due to inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene services. Over 40% of those deaths occurred in India.21 801,000 children die each year from diarrhea. 88% of the infections are attributable to unsafe drinking water, improper sanitation services, and hygiene.22
  • In 2017, there were 219 million cases of malaria worldwide, with 92% occurring in Africa, of these, 435,000 died, and 61% were children under 5.23 Research shows more populations will be at risk of malaria as climate change expands suitable habitats for disease-carrying mosquitoes.24 Since 2010, malaria mortality rates have decreased by 33% globally, with the largest declines occurring in south-east Asia, Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean.23
  • Indoor air pollution, caused primarily from smoke while cooking contributes to two million premature deaths each year.1
  • Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death in the world. A healthy diet, regular physical activity, and avoiding tobacco could reduce the major risk factors associated with premature deaths from cardiovascular diseases and strokes.24
  • Approximately 23% of deaths in 2012 were caused by communicable diseases.26
  • Globally, about 100 million people fall under the poverty line each year due to out-of-pocket health care costs.27

​​Official Development Assistance for Health to Developing Nations28,29

Official Development Assistance for Health to Developing Nations

Education and Employment

  • Global youth literacy has risen from 83% in 1990 to 91% in 2016.31 The gap in female and male literacy rates is also closing; in 1991, literacy rates were 86.6% and 77.3% for boys and girls, respectively. In 2016, the literacy rates were 93% and 91%.32
  • Cuba spends the highest percentage of its GDP on education, devoting between 12-13% each year. The U.S. spends around 5% each year.32
  • Sub-Saharan Africa primary school enrollment increased from 52% to 80% from 1990-2015; the 2015 world average is 91.5%.33
  • In Low Human Development nations, 25% percent of the population has at least some secondary education. In Very High Human Development nations this metric is 89%.1
  • Top employers in developing countries are agriculture (64%), services (26%), and industry (10%); 60% of these jobs pay $1.25 USD/day or less.34

​​Adult Literacy Rates, 201630,31

Adult Literacy Rates, 2016


  • It is “extremely likely” (>95% certainty) that the majority of global warming is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.35 In the 21st century, natural and social systems will likely face increasing risks of extinction for 20-30% of plant and animal species; more coastal flooding and erosion, heat waves, droughts, and tropical storm intensity; and health risks associated with malnutrition and water-related diseases. Declines in crop productivity in low latitudes and freshwater availability are likely. Poor communities are especially vulnerable because of their low adaptive capacity and dependence on local climate (e.g., rain for agriculture).36
  • The Stern Review found that investing 1% of global GDP annually in GHG reductions could avert a permanent reduction of 5-20% GDP per capita due to climate change impacts.37


  • In 2000, the UN established eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including reducing child mortality and ensuring environmental sustainability. Great progress has been made towards achieving these goals within the last decade.33
  • Through 2015, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom continued to exceed giving 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) as Official Development Assistance (ODA) towards achieving the MDGs.33 The U.S. donates a lower percentage of GNI, but the greatest dollar amount of any nation. In 2016, U.S. ODA totaled $36.2 billion.38
  1. United Nations (UN) Development Programme (2018) “Human Development Indices and Indicators 2018 Statistical Update.”
  2. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (2019) “The World Factbook.”
  3. UN Population Division (2018) World Urbanization Prospects: 2018 Revision.
  4. UN Population Division (2007) Population Newsletter December 2007.
  5. UN Population Division (2019) “World Population Prospects 2019.”
  6. World Bank (2019) “World Development Indicators-Life Expectancy.”
  7. UN Population Division (2016) “Estimates and Projections of Family Planning Indicators 2016.”
  8. UN Population Division (2016) “World Contraceptive Use 2016.”
  9. World Bank (2019) “PovcalNet: Regional Aggregation using 2011 PPP and $1.90/day poverty line.”
  10. U.S. Census Bureau (2018) Income and Poverty in the United States 2017.
  11. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (2018) Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Programs Homeless Populations and Subpopulations.
  12. World Food Program (2015) Hunger Map 2015.
  13. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (2018) International Consumer and Food Industry Trends.
  14. UN (2014) World Economic Situation and Prospects 2014.
  15. Black, R., et al. (2013) “Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-income and middle-income countries.” The Lancet, 382(9890):396.
  16. Evenson, R. and D. Gollin (2003) “Assessing the Impact of the Green Revolution, 1960-2000.” Science, (300): 758-762.
  17. UN Food and Agriculture Organization (2017) The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017.
  18. World Health Organization (WHO) (2018) World Health Statistics 2018.
  19. WHO (2017) Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation - 2017 Update.
  20. Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) (2018) UNAIDS Data 2018.
  21. WHO (2014) Investing in Water and Sanitation: Increasing Access, Reducing Inequalities.
  22. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2016) Diarrhea-Common Illness, Global Killer.
  23. WHO (2018) World Malaria Report 2018.
  24. Caminade, C., et al. (2014). “Impact of climate change on global malaria distribution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” 111(9), 3286–3291.
  25. WHO (2013) World Health Statistics 2013.
  26. WHO (2015) World Health Statistics 2015.
  27. WHO (2012) World Health Statistics 2012.
  28. WHO (2013) “Global Health Observatory Data Repository: Official Development Assistance for Health.”
  29. WHO (2012) “From Whom to Whom? Official Development Assistance for Health: Second Edition.”
  30. U.S. CIA (2018) The World Factbook.   
  31. UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Institute for Statistics (2017) Fact Sheet on Youth and Adult Literacy 2017.
  32. World Bank (2019) “World Development Indicators: Government expenditure on education, total (% of GDP).”
  33. UN (2015) Millennium Development Goals Report 2015.
  34. International Labour Organization (2011) Growth, Employment and Decent Work in the Least Developed Countries.
  35. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2014) Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report.
  36. IPCC (2007) Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report.
  37. Stern, N. et al. (2006) Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change.
  38. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2018) “Total flows by donor.”
Cite as: 
Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2019. "Social Development Indicators Factsheet." Pub. No. CSS08-15.