New look at human development points way to inclusive growth

Two years ago, a small team of McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) experts, launched a research project to analyze the state of human development around the world over the past 20 years. The team was led by MGI senior partners Chris Bradley, Sven Smit, and Jonathan Woetzel; partner Tilman Tacke; and Marc Canal, an MGI fellow.

The team developed a new data set that broke the planet down into 40,000 microregions, a view 230 times more granular than a country perspective, which was how most data had previously been produced. For example, Germany was made up of 401 microregions, and Indonesia had 502.

To calculate economic activity, they applied GDP statistics down to the smallest geographic area possible and then filled in the gaps using nighttime luminosity from satellite images as a measure of activity.

The team gathered regularly to review the developing results. “We fully expected to find that many communities had collapsed as manufacturing jobs were lost, young people left for university to never return, and public-health crises decimated many areas,” recalls Chris. “In fact, the project was initially named Left-behind places.”

But the findings kept coming back positive—surprisingly so. The team stepped back and questioned what they were seeing, but they kept following the data.

“We use the analogy of a microscope. When scientists first looked at different specimens with their naked eye, they appeared still, dead. But once they were magnified, it was clear they were actually teeming with life,” explains Chris. “This is what we saw—whether we zoomed into the mountains of Italy, the jungles of Colombia, the outer reaches of Nigeria—there were pockets of vibrancy, growth and promise that were not visible at the country level. We changed the name of the report to Pixels of progress.”

“One of my favorite findings was the amazing growth in life expectancy and importance of innovation,” says Marc. “In some places, people gained more than 20 years of life expectancy over 20 years of time. In most individual countries, regions that started lower in life expectancy actually grew faster than those at the top. Rendered graphically, the catch up is visualized as a massive convergence.”

Chris Bradley and Marc Canal
Chris Bradley, MGI senior partner, and Marc Canal, MGI fellow
Chris Bradley and Marc Canal

Innovations in healthcare, specifically new ways of making treatments and medicines low cost, accessible, and available quickly across the globe, have contributed to this trend. “This type of ‘catch-up innovation’ is just as significant as the initial scientific breakthrough,” points out Marc. “One example is the elimination or reduction of infectious diseases in Africa.”

A twist to the research relates to China. Overall, two billion people achieved higher living standards. Half of them live in China alone—the second billion are spread across 75 other countries.  “It’s what we call ‘China times two,’” says Chris. “Without such a close up, localized view across so many countries, we would have missed it.”

On the other side of the spectrum, our researchers saw a considerable reduction in the number of people living in microregions with the lowest living standards. “Twenty years ago, there were about 1.1 billion people with such standards of living, and that has actually dropped to 405 million today. In other words, we’re almost down to less than 5 percent of people living in the poorest parts in the world,” says Chris.  “This is not to say we don’t still have a long way to go, but it is tremendous progress.”

Pixel global earth map

Pixels of Progress: A granular look at human development around the world

Check out the findings in this interactive.

The report captures a snapshot of trends shaping the world today. There may never be more children than there are now, as birthrates in China and other countries drop. Japan and southern Italy have very high aging populations overall, hinting at the decline of areas where these populations are concentrated. There may never be more people living in rural areas on the planet than there are now.

The findings are already helping a number of organizations: NGOs that want to understand where to best invest scarce dollars for sustainable growth; government agencies seeking to target resources locally for better outcomes; companies looking to reconfigure their geographic footprints to find new markets, employees, and resources, to name a few.

“The two most common responses so far have been: ‘Wow, do you have more data?’ and ‘It’s much better news than I expected,’” says Chris. “But the one that will stay with me is the client who emailed to say ‘Thanks for the presentation. I’m hopeful in a way I’ve not been in some time.’”

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