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, Australia, and Switzerland.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 2016 U.S. population is 325 million and world population is over 7 billion.2
  • Global population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, with 6.4 billion people living in urban areas—a 61% 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 2010 to 2.0 by 2100. Currently, Niger has the highest fertility rate at 7.63; the U.S. fertility rate is 1.89.5
  • Life expectancy averages 63 years in Least Developed Countries (LCD);  life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is 79 years.6
  • Globally, contraceptive use is increasing.  Currently, contraceptive use is 3.6 times higher today when compared to 1970 and is 30.5 times higher in least developed countries.7 However, 20-34% of women of reproductive age still don’t have access to contraceptives in 43 countries.8
  • The U.S. is one of only three developed countries with an adolescent birth rate at 30 or greater (per 1000 births).5

World Population, Urban and Rural, 1950-20503

Figure_1_World Population, Urban and Rural, 1950-2050

Standard of Living

  • In 2012, 0.9 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, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Sweden have among the most equal income distributions in the world. With a rating of 41.1, the U.S. ranks in the bottom 50% in terms of income equality.1
  • In 2014, 14.8% of the U.S. population—46.7 million people—were living in poverty (income under $24,008 for a family of 4 with 2 children). For Hispanic and Black populations in the U.S., approximately 25% of each group was living below the poverty line.10 
  • About 564,000 people were homeless in the U.S. in 2015.11


  • Average consumer expenditures on food, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco range from 20% in developed countries to 31% in developing countries in 2014. On average, Americans spend less than 10%, while Nigerians spend 58%.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 2.4 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—82% have access to proper facilities, compared to 51% in rural areas.19 
  • In 2015, 91% of the world population had access to clean drinking water, an increase of over 2.6 billion people since 1990. However, in Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa only 44% and 56% of the rural populations, respectively, have access to clean drinking water.19
  • Only 5% of the rural population in Sub-Saharan Africa has water piped directly into their house or property.19

​​Deaths from Unsafe Water and Sanitation, 200418

Figure_3_Deaths from Unsafe Water and Sanitation, 2004

Healthcare and Disease

  • Globally, 37 million people were infected with HIV and 1.2 million died from AIDS in 2014. Most HIV cases—25.8 million—are in sub-Saharan Africa. Globally, the number of new HIV infections decreased 35% from 2000 to 2014, due to behavior changes and better treatment options; however, in the Middle East, Northern Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia, the number of new infections has increased more than 25%.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 2015, approximately 438,000 people died from malaria, of whom 90% lived in Africa, and 70% were children under 5. Preventive measures such as treated bed nets, indoor insecticide spraying, and anti-malarial drugs have reduced deaths. Since 2000, malaria mortality rates have decreased by 60% globally, and 57 countries are expected to reduce their infection rates by >75%.23
  • Indoor air pollution, caused from smoke while cooking contributes to two million premature deaths of women and children 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.25
  • Globally, about 100 million people fall under the poverty line each year due to out-of-pocket health care costs.26

​​Official Development Assistance for Health to Developing Nations27,28

Official Development Assistance for Health to Developing Nations

Education and Employment

  • Global literacy is significantly improving. For example, global youth literacy has risen from 83% in 1990 to 91% in 2015. 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 2015, the literacy rates were 91.8% and 91.2%.31
  • Lithuania and Cuba spend the highest percentage of GDP on education, devoting between 12-18% each year from 2010-2015. The U.S. spends around 5.1% each year.32
  • Sub-Saharan Africa primary school enrollment increased from 52% to 80% from 1990-2015; the 2015 world average is 91.5%.31
  • In countries with Low Human Development, the average amount of schooling is 4.1 years. In Very High Human Development nations, the average is 11.2 years of school.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.33

​​Adult Literacy Rates, 201229,30

Figure_5_Adult Literacy Rates, 2012.


  • It is “extremely likely” (>95% certainty) that the majority of global warming is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.34 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 lower latitudes and freshwater availability are likely. Poor communities are especially vulnerable to climate change because of their low adaptive capacity and high dependence on climate conditions (e.g., rain for agriculture).35
  • 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.36


  • 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.31
  • 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.31 The U.S. donates a lower percentage of GNI, but the greatest dollar amount of any nation. In 2015, U.S. ODA totaled $31.1 billion.37
  1. United Nations (UN) Development Programme (2015) Human Development Report 2015.
  2. U.S. Census Bureau (2016) “US and World Population Clocks.”
  3. UN Population Division (2014) World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision.
  4. UN Population Division (2007) Population Newsletter December 2007.
  5. UN Population Division (2015) World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision.
  6. World Bank (2016) “World Development Indicators-Life Expectancy.”
  7. UN Population Division (2015) “Estimates and Projections of Family Planning Indicators 2015.”
  8. UN Population Division (2015) “World Contraceptive Use 2015.”
  9. World Bank (2016) “PovcalNet: Regional Aggregation using 2011 PPP and $1.90/day poverty line.”
  10. U.S. Census Bureau (2015) Income and Poverty in the United States 2014.
  11. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (2015) The 2015 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness: Volume I of the 2015 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report.
  12. World Food Program (2015) Hunger Map 2015.
  13. USDA ERS (2015) “Percent of consumer expenditures spent on food, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco that were consumed at home, by selected countries, 2014.”
  14. United Nations (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.
  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 (2012) “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012.”
  18. World Health Organization (WHO) (2010) “Safer Water, Better Health: Costs, benefits and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health, 2010 Update.”
  19. WHO (2015) Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation - 2015 Update.
  20. UNAIDS (2015) Fact Sheet 2015.
  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 (2015) World Malaria Report 2015.
  24. WHO (2013) World Health Statistics 2013.
  25. WHO (2015) World Health Statistics 2015.
  26. WHO (2012) World Health Statistics 2012.
  27. WHO (2013) “Global Health Observatory Data Repository: Official Development Assistance for Health.”
  28. WHO (2012) From Whom to Whom? Official Development Assistance for Health: Second Edition.
  29. UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Institute for Statistics (2014) “Literacy Data for 2014.”
  30. U.S. CIA (2015) World Factbook.
  31. UN (2015) Millennium Development Goals Report 2015.
  32. World Bank (2016) “World Development Indicators: Government spending on education, total (% of GDP).”
  33. International Labour Organization (2011) Growth, Employment and Decent Work in the Least Developed Countries.
  34. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2014) Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report.
  35. IPC (2007) Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report.
  36. Stern, N. et al. (2006) Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change.
  37. OECD (2016) “StatExtracts: Total flows by donor.”
Cite as: 
Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2016. "Social Development Indicators Factsheet." Pub. No. CSS08-15.