1. Human development

Updated: 2 March 2015



This analysis assumes that no country or region can reach global dominance without a sufficiently large, educated, reasonably healthy, and socially integrated population.


Leaders of states have always known that demography matters. Population size is a first critical factor for superiority. Finland, for instance, might be a quite successful nation, inhabited by highly educated, laborious people. But with a projected population of 4.7 million people in 2050 it will be less populous than the city of Kunming today - or any other of the 19 (!) Chinese province capitals with a population larger than 4.7 million. There are a number of these mini-nations, particularly in Europe: Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and others. One cannot expect that these countries, by themselves, can become important global players. With all due respect for their national sovereignty, it has to be said that they have a population size (and often also economic power) that in Asia is usually managed by a deputy mayor of a big city. Only as members of the European Union they can hope to play a significant role in global competition.

Mini-nations have unusually high per capita expenses for their government and administration; their consumer markets are too small for economics of scale; and the reservoir of human resources is too limited for larger-scale economic or military operations. This is especially the case, if the populations of these mini-nations speak different languages. A patchwork of nations with a few million each, where people are separated by language and culture, may be attractive for tourists; but it has clear disadvantages if compared to a large relatively homogenous nation such as China, were more than a billion people speak the same language and share similar culture.

Population structure is also important. No country or region can expect to play a leading role at the global level with a seriously distorted age composition of its population. A country with an unusually high percentage of elderly (above the age of 60) or young children (below 15) must be considered handicapped, if compared to countries with a large percentage of the population in main working age. There are, for instance, large regions in Europe where almost one third of the population will be above the age of 50 in the near future. It is hard to imagine such regions dominated by near-pensioners to be at the cutting edge in global competition. There are several other demographic factors that can determine a country's chances in global competition: the spatial distribution of the population in its territory or the trends in fertility and mortality. 


Probably the single most important element of global dominance is a well educated, highly motivated and reasonably disciplined population. Today, no country or region can hope to play a major role in the global economy or world politics that does not have a constant supply of highly qualified engineers, managers, scientists, and other knowledge workers. The complexity of high-tech production and advanced services (such as in banking or health) requires a well trained labor force. A country or region also needs a scientific, economic and political elite to develop its own technology, economic strategy and political vision. Women's education is a key element for a country's or region's human resource wealth. It not only widens the pool for qualified extra-familial labor, as compared to a patriarchal society; it also improves the wellbeing of children and facilitates equal opportunities between men and women.

Public health

Poor public health is also a serious human development hurdle for a country or region that attempts to achieve a leading role in global competition. For China, Europe and the USA the most relevant public health threats are smoking, obesity, drinking and degenerative age-related diseases - in that order. They can put a heavy burden on a country's or region's health system. More people are dying of tobacco-related diseases today than from any other cause of death. Premature death and long-term disease is also closely related to obesity. Recently, it was estimated that almost 50 percent of the US population is excessively fat. Public health costs are sky high due to these behavior-related health handicaps. Excessive drinking of alcohol is a serious problem in some parts of Eastern and Northern Europe, and particularly in Russia. Alcohol abuse is one of the main components in the drastic life expectancy decline among males in Russia. The public health crisis in the states of the former Soviet Union clearly contributes to their geo-strategic marginalization. Due to population aging, Europe and Northern America and, in the not too distant future, China will be confronted with an epidemic of age-related diseases, like Alzheimer's or cancers.

Human safety

Countries, such as South Africa, Columbia, or Russia are good examples that insufficient human safety can seriously harm a nation's chances to play a major role in the world. High crime rates, poor traffic safety and permanent threats from natural disasters can slow down or prevent human development. If a country is struggling constantly with flooding (such as Bangladesh), draughts (such as Chad), forest fires, earthquakes, volcano eruptions or avalanches - particularly in the absence of proper emergency services and insurance, the population will soon be exhausted. If people live in constant fear of violent crime, if women are afraid to leave their house, if crazy drivers cause frequent injuries and death human development will be stalled.

The safety dimension of human development is frequently ignored, because those who invent the common theories of development typically live in nice, gated neighborhoods among civilized and liberal-minded citizens. Safety plays a much more urgent role when you are an Indian woman threatened by acid attacks or mass rape or a hard working taxi driver from a favela in Rio de Janeiro, who is constantly worrying that drug gangs might terrorize your family.

Creative human potential and productivity needs a certain level of personal safety to flourish. Countries, which cannot guarantee this safety will not be able to utilize their human resources.

Links to comparative analyses (in preparation)

Comparative analyses of various advantages and challenges in human development of China, Europe and the USA:



Public health
Personal safety


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Links to online articles

Below are links for further reading. Attention was given to include a wide spectrum of opinions and academic positions:

Eileen Otis: Inequality in China and the impact on women's rights. The Conversation, 19 March 2015

Ching Kwan Lee / Yonghong Zhang (2013): The power of instability: Unraveling the microfoundation of bargained authoritarianism in China. American Journal of Sociology. vol. 118, No. 6, 1475-1508


Creative Commons License "China-Europe-USA - Human Development: Demography" by Gerhard K. Heilig is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Published: 2004; Revised: 2015