More investment in jobs and social security, and the introduction of laws that offer vulnerable people greater protection, are required to halt the slowing of human development caused by income inequality, fluctuations in food prices, natural disasters and conflict.
The universal provision of basic social services and targeted support for disadvantaged groups, such as women, people with disabilities, older people and minority groups, is a key plank of the flagship report of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
The annual study, this year entitled Sustaining human progress: reducing vulnerabilities and building resilience, found that advances in alleviating poverty have been undermined by natural or human-induced disasters and crises. "Despite overall gains in human development, progress in all regions decelerated over 2008–13 compared with 2000–08," the UNDP said.
Unless people's vulnerability is systematically addressed, progress will not be equitable or sustainable, said the head of the UNDP, Helen Clark.
The report is based on the latest human development index (HDI) rankings, which rates 187 countries by life expectancy, access to education, and gross national income per capita. Norway, Australia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the US top the list; Sierra Leone, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger are at the bottom.
The UNDP warns that human vulnerability is rising, mainly due to financial instability and mounting environmental pressures. These factors could reverse development gains, it says.
"If people remain at risk of slipping back into poverty because of structural factors and persistent vulnerabilities, development progress will remain precarious," Clark said. "The eradication of poverty is not just about getting to zero, it is also about staying there."
While economic inequality has eased in some countries, the report points out that the combined wealth of the world's 85 richest people equals that of the 3.5 billion poorest, or half the Earth's population.
Education and language learning continue to elude the world's poorest people, many of whom undertake financially insecure and irregular work, the report says. An estimated 1.2 billion people survive on $1.25 or less per day; 2.7 billion live on less than $2.50 per day, the UNDP says.
An increasing number of conflicts has driven down the HDI in many countries, particularly in the Central African Republic, Libya and Syria, and in neighbouring countries that have hosted refugees fleeing civil war, drought and food shortages.
"Unless and until vulnerabilities are addressed effectively, and all people enjoy the opportunity to share in human development progress, development advances will be neither equitable nor sustainable," Clark said, noting that protection for vulnerable people should be included in the sustainable development goals, which will replace the millennium development goals when they expire next year.
A fairer distribution of profits and a greater emphasis on preparedness are listed in the report as long-term aims goals to bring about sustainable development. "Climate change could become the single biggest hindrance to the ambitions of the sustainable development goals and the post-2015 development agendas," the UNDP says.