Iran ranked higher than Turkey, Brazil by U.N. development index

November 12, 2010
Kevan Harris
            Iranians are doing better in health and education than their counterparts in key countries in the developing world, according to a new U.N. report. The 2010 U.N. Human Development Report ranks Iran at 70 out of 169 countries--higher than Brazil at 73, Venezuela at 75, and Turkey at 83.
            The report finds:
  • In 1985, Iran ranked below Algeria, Botswana, Jordan, and Thailand.  In 2010, all four now rank lower than Iran, despite their own impressive gains in development. 
  • Out of 112 countries, Iran ranked 18th in highest average annual improvement in the human development index over the two decades between 1990 and 2010.
  • Iran ranks higher than Turkey on education (notably higher), but slightly under on health (life expectancy).  The overall index puts Iran above Turkey because of the way separate components are compiled.  The report puts life expectancy in Iran at 71.91 years, Turkey at 72.23 years.
           The Human Development Index, introduced in 1990, measures development beyond the barometers of a country’s wealth. It includes health, represented by life expectancy. It also includes education, represented by the average years of schooling.  Since economic growth and improvements in health and education do not always advance together, the Human Development Report highlights “the imperfect nature of wealth as a gauge of human development.”
            National wealth, especially for resource-rich countries like Iran, can often mask poor health and education.  In Iran’s case, however, its improvements in health and education far outpace its economic growth, which has been sporadic over the past two decades. “The manner in which countries spend their wealth, not the wealth itself, is decisive,” the new report explains.
            Among Iranians born after the 1979 Revolution, literacy is now nearly universal.  Basic health care is provided free to Iran’s rural villages through a system of “health houses.”  After a pragmatic discussion over the need for birth control and its acceptability in Islam in the late 1980s, married couples have been encouraged to limit their family size to two children.
           The current “baby boom” generation of Iranian youth is quite large relative to the country’s population.  Yet the stark reduction in the country’s birth rate, partly due to Iran’s improvements in access to health and education, ensures that this lop-sided youth “bulge” will not continue as the population ages.  In this regard, Iran is better situated than Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan, countries that all now have higher birth rates.
           The report’s key insight is “good things don't always come together.”  A country may show poor outcomes for one measure of development, while in others it exhibits significant gains.  The report’s new data indicates this trend is particularly true for Iran’s post-revolutionary era.
           The report’s country page on Iran can be found at

Read Kevan Harris' chapter on the bazaar in “The Iran Primer” 

Kevan Harris, who frequently travels to Iran, is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Johns Hopkins University.  He recently traveled throughout Iran for a year doing research. He writes a weblog called “The Thirsty Fish.