Human Capital

Dozens of issues populate the Global Issues Matrix. There are myriad interrelationships among them. The issues have been grouped into seven major headings. Below are global issues under the general heading of Human Capital, with comments on their characteristics and relationships. Human capital refers to the capabilities of the population that can be put to productive use in contributing to their prosperity individually and as a society.


Demographics – Median age, birth rate, and life expectancy are three revealing measures of a country’s population. Comparing these three measures for one country to those of other countries discloses much about the countries’ relative stages of development. Developed countries have experienced increased longevity due to medical advances and healthier environments. Likewise, lower birth rates have come with increased female participation in the labor force and higher living standards. As medical, environmental, and nutritional advances are introduced into developing countries, the same benefits will accrue, yielding economic growth and less need for government assistance to young, destitute populations.


Disease – Countries which cannot mount effective health systems are less able to combat disease. Clean water and sanitation are necessary to prevent the spread of some diseases. An article in the July 30, 2011 edition of The Economist relates the severity of cholera outbreaks to the level of development: “the more squalid the country, the more virulent the cholera.” The World Health Organization’s program to eradicate polio has been less successful in countries with unstable politics. Polio remains endemic in three countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Limited knowledge and scarce resources allow preventable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis to spread, and malnutrition to continue, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.


Education – The link between education and employment is fundamental in both developed and developing countries. A recurring theme in economic debate among developed countries is whether current workforce skills are adequate to fill the jobs that new technologies require, even as “old industry” jobs are being replaced by automation. Repetitive manual tasks have been taken over by machines for decades, and more recently repetitive tasks that require cognitive capabilities, such as scanning volumes of legal case studies, have either been replaced or augmented by software. Non-routine jobs, both manual and cognitive, are less threatened by automation as they require critical thinking skills and interaction among multiple human senses that have not (yet) been duplicated by computers.


In developing countries, where labor rates are still low and sophisticated mechanization is not available, acquiring skills for performing repetitive tasks presents employment opportunities. The more advanced the education, the greater the capabilities for higher-paying employment. Basic skills are best learned in the early years of elementary education, and then built upon in later years. The path to 21st century jobs, in developed and developing countries, requires teaching skills that are not always present in formal educational institutions.


Human Rights – The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Article 1 declared, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Nine individual treaties over the following decades translated the declaration into legal form. The treaties addressed racial discrimination (1965); economic, social, and cultural rights (1966); civil and political rights (1966); discrimination against women (1979); torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment (1984); rights of children (1989); rights of migrant workers (1990); rights of persons with disabilities (2006); and protection of persons from enforced disappearance (2006). Each treaty must be accepted individually by each country consenting to be bound by it. Separate international committees of independent experts for each of the treaties monitor compliance with treaties’ requirements.


The success of the UN efforts on human rights depends upon voluntary commitment of each country. Some countries, notably the United States, have not ratified various treaties due to dissatisfaction with certain provisions. For example, the treaty on elimination of discrimination against women has been signed by 187 countries, but not by the U.S., or by Iran, Tonga, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, or South Sudan. Although the U.S. is bound by commitments through its ratification of other treaties, attempts at ratification have failed to be voted on by the Senate after coming out of committee in 1994 and 2002. In other cases countries have signed on even though their human rights records indicate non-compliance.


Medical Services – Expectations of health and medical services are similar throughout the world – avoid or cure diseases, ease pain, enhance and extend life. But there the similarities end. Developed countries are hoping for cures from medical nanotechnology and for diseases more associated with rich countries only because their populations live longer. Developing countries are dealing with distributing treated mosquito nets, and at times convincing suspicious populations that standard treatments are safe. Developed countries have largely eradicated many infectious diseases. Self-contained toilets that produce no waste and generate excess electricity may hold hope for diseases in developing countries spread by unsanitary conditions. Medical diagnostic labs-on-a-chip may soon be available to provide fast and accurate medical diagnosis anywhere. Medical advances and healthier environments have yielded increased longevity for populations in rich and poor countries. In spite of advances, high costs continue to make access to health care and medicine a challenge to countries at all stages of development.


Migration – Many European countries, as well as Japan, face worker shortages due to aging populations. Migrants can offset the shortages of workers, but many of these countries worry that migrants will not “fit in” or will change the national culture. Migrants can change the demographic characteristics of a receiving location, especially at the local level. Migrants fleeing in large numbers from war-torn areas tend to find communities of like individuals, bringing their own culture with them. Migrants often take low-paying jobs that native populations shun. Usually of child-bearing age, migrants bring or start families and see to the education of their children, who they hope will qualify for better-paid employment. Migration is a search for a better life. Migration may not be motivated by strictly economic conditions. Crop failure caused by long-term drought eventually forces the population dependent on produce from the land to migrate to more hospitable climates. These people are referred to as “climate refugees.”


Poverty – Whether in developed or developing countries, poverty represents a loss of potential for society as well as a barrier to individuals maximizing their own potential and realizing their goals for themselves and their families. At the individual level, education and training for the skills needed for employment, as well as nutrition, health care, and housing, are required. Beyond that, and missing in many developing countries, are physical and social infrastructure elements. Government must be just, competent, legitimate, transparent, and inclusive. Financial investment, including micro lending, must be available, along with property rights established by law. Physical infrastructure for a healthy economy includes highways, seaports, airports, electricity, water, rail lines, and pipelines.


Women’s Equality – Plainly and simply, any society that denies women rights equal to men is forgoing half of its economic potential. Starting with education, gender equality is required to promote economic development. Beyond education, barriers to gender equality include laws that bar women from inheriting or owning property, obtaining loans or bank accounts, or working without permission of a male relative. Constraints also bar women from political activity and a realm wherein they can influence social policy concerning children’s education and health.

Recent post