The Edition


Maldives’ choice for next frontier of human development

Joint opinion editorial by UNDP Maldives Resident Representative Akiko Fujii, Minister of Economic Development Fayyaz Ismail, and Minister of Fisheries, Marine Resources, and Agriculture Zaha Waheed

18 December 2020, MVT 09:40
According to this year’s UNDP Human Development Report (HDR), Maldives has the highest material footprint per person in the South Asia region, which at 14.5 tonnes even surpasses the world average of 12.3 tonnes per person. PHOTO/UNDP
18 December 2020, MVT 09:40

This year’s UNDP Human Development Report (HDR) celebrates thirty years since its birth in 1990. In the middle of the disruption and confusion of the COVID pandemic, when everyone is wondering what the ‘new normal’ might be, what better year could we have for celebrating our 30th anniversary HDR?

At its heart, human development is about expanding human choices. Recent decades have seen an explosion in the choices made available to people everywhere as a result of the tremendous economic growth and extension in life expectancy that have been achieved. Much of what we choose, however, involves an enormous consumption of energy and materials, typically with huge reliance on fossil fuels and unrecycled materials and chemicals. As a result, we are now likely to limit future human choices: polluted air and water negatively affecting health; global warming leading to extreme weathers and rising sea levels; water acidification and land degradation causing loss of biodiversity and of natural resources, such as our coral reefs, fish and beautiful beaches.

We are destabilizing the very systems on which our prosperity, even our survival, depends at an unprecedented speed. Hunger is on the rise. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), after decades of progress, people affected by hunger have increased by 60 million over the five years until 2019. The number of disasters linked to natural hazards has increased by 75 percent over the last 20 years. Cumulatively, these disasters have affected more than four billion people, claiming 1.23 million lives and causing close to $3 trillion in economic losses. Almost 70% of the world’s wildlife may have been lost in the past 50 years.

The extremity of the situation is neatly summarized in HDR 2020:

Whether we wish it or not, a new normal is coming. COVID-19 is just the tip of the spear. Scientists generally believe that we are exiting the Holocene, which spanned some 12,000 years, during which time human civilization as we know it came to be. They argue we are now entering a new proposed geologic epoch—the Anthropocene—in which humans are a dominant force shaping the future of the planet.

And as a consequence:

The increasingly important questions for many countries are not about the overall size of the pie but the relative size of its slices. In this year’s Report, though not for the first time in its history, we also worry about the oven.

In other words, the overriding problem facing the world is no longer just how to achieve greater and fairer growth, but how to ensure that we survive to enjoy its benefits. For the Maldives, a small island nation, where 80% of our land lies one meter above sea level on average, the climate impact is an immediate reality.

According to this year’s Human Development Index (HDI), Maldives is positioned at 95 out of 189 countries. Since 1990, average life expectancy in Maldives has increased by 17.4 years and gross national income (GNI) per capita has increased by 132%. At the same time, however, this year’s report reveals that Maldives has the highest material footprint per person in the South Asia region, which at 14.5 tonnes even surpasses the world average of 12.3 tonnes per person.

According to the report, almost 80% of the world’s population believe protecting the planet is important, but only half say they take concrete action. Clearly, there exists a huge gap between people’s values and behaviour.

This year’s HDR focuses on mechanisms of action, rather than on specific actors, partly because human development in the Anthropocene will require ‘whole-of-society’ responses. Actions need to go across ministries, national and subnational levels, industries, civil society and people, and beyond just the environment sector. What kind of ‘whole-of-society’ responses could be made by Maldives?

Maldives currently spends 10% of GDP on oil imports. We also rely heavily on food imports. By shifting towards more renewable energy sources and domestic agricultural food production, the government can address Maldives’ relatively high Planetary-Pressures Adjusted HDI (PHDI) more effectively.[1]

( [1] This year HDR introduces the Planetary-Pressures Adjusted HDI (PHDI). PHDI adjusts the standard HDI by a country’s level of carbon dioxide emissions and material consumption, each on a per capita basis. For countries on the lower end of the human development spectrum, the impact of the adjustment is generally small. For countries with high or very high human development, the impact tends to become increasingly negative, reflecting the various ways that their development paths impact the planet. )

Maldives welcomed the ratification of the Consumer Protection Act this summer. It is critical that consumers’ rights be protected from unlawful commercial practices. At the same time, however, it is important that we as consumers use our rights and powers to influence responsible/good business practices in order to shape our future in the way that we want: by wisely choosing safe goods and services - production of which upholds the highest standard of sustainable development principles.

The Maldives Government has a unique leadership role to play. Good policies are essential in guiding changes in individual consumers’ attitudes. We believe the new Import-Export Act, banning the importation of single-use plastics from 2021, will help us change our consumption patterns in ways that will reduce plastic waste in our bountiful ocean and on our beautiful beaches. This Act will be effective, but we don't have to wait for the Act. One unfortunate consequence of the recent COVID-19 lock-down was an increase in the use of plastic packages in food deliveries. However, we are now free to choose not to use such materials, which all too frequently end up on our beaches and in our ocean.

As consumers, we have the power to change not only our immediate environment; we can also impact entire industries and whole supply chain systems throughout the world, by choosing to buy environmentally and socially responsible goods and services. The COVID-19 crisis, which has so restricted the lives of the young, represents both a clear warning and an urgent challenge. It is essential that the generation with the greatest stake in the future should not only consume responsibly, but also use their entrepreneurial skills and imaginations to build new businesses, in greener, lower carbon and more sustainable ways, as responsible producers of the future. The ‘new normal’ will be what we make it, as both consumers and producers.

We are cautiously optimistic. Because we have no choice but to make a wise choice in this era of the Anthropocene.

The UNDP Human Development Report 2020 is available to read at: