The HDI ranks countries using not only income, but also measures such at average level of educational attainment, life expectancy, income inequality, robbery rate, and gender equality. The New York Times points out that trends for human well-being have been strongly positive since 1970:

Over all, average life expectancy around the globe jumped to 70 years in 2010, up from 59 in 1970. School enrollment through high school reached 70 percent of eligible pupils, up from 55 percent, and average per capita income doubled to more than $10,000 in the 135 countries for which numbers were available. The statistics cover about 92 percent of the world’s population.

But make no mistake - human evil and stupidity can reverse progress:

Zimbabwe is one of three countries — along with Congo and Zambia — that rank lower now over all than in 1970, with Zimbabwe at the very bottom of the list.

Zimbabwe was once one of the continent’s most promising nations, known as a regional breadbasket whose people were highly literate. But it now has the lowest per capita income of the countries and territories for which the United Nations has data, two-fifths lower than the second worst-off nation, Congo.

Zimbabwe’s per capita gross domestic project peaked in 1998, and has plunged since then to a level far below what it was in 1970.

The United States is fourth behind Norway, Australia, and New Zealand. Below are the top ten and bottom ten countries.

  1. Norway
  2. Australia
  3. New Zealand
  4. United States
  5. Ireland
  6. Liechtenstein
  7. Netherlands
  8. Canada
  9. Sweden
  10. Germany
  1. Mali
  2. Burkina Faso
  3. Liberia
  4. Chad
  5. Guinea-Bissau
  6. Mozambique
  7. Burundi
  8. Niger
  9. Congo (Democratic Republic of the)
  10. Zimbabwe

Go here to check out the HDI statistics of your favorite and least favorite countries.