Multidimensional development and the SDGs

By Matt Burdett, 21 March 2018

On this page, we look at the multidimensional process of human development, with a focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goals criteria.

What is multidimensional development?

The term ‘multidimensional development’ recognises that human development is not one thing. Rather, human development is a broad term that includes lots of possible factors, such as:

  • Social development
    • Healthcare
    • Education
    • Social cohesion (societies work together)
  • Economic development
    • Income
    • Economic equality within societies
    • Employment opportunities
  • Environmental management
    • Sustainable resource production and consumption
    • Waste treatment
  • Gender equality
    • Males and females treated equitably
    • Recognises that females and males have different needs e.g. reproductive healthcare and access to contraception
  • Political empowerment
    • People have the ability to make decisions about their own lives
    • All people are equally involved in the process
  • Demographic development
    • Gender balance in the population
    • Age structure provides enough working-age population to support the dependent population

Each of these issues could be measured using a single indicator, such as ‘% of women in national parliaments’ to measure gender equality. These are called single component indicators because they measure just one thing. However, to sum up the overall level of human development, we need to merge these indicators together into indices. These can be termed multiple component indicators because they have more than one component.

The Human Development Index

The most famous of the multiple component indicators is the United Nations’ Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI uses three broad areas of development to provide a score between 0 and 1 for each country (UNDP, 201):

  • Economic: “A decent standard of living”, measured as Gross National Income per capita at Purchasing Power Parity (GNIpcPPP$)
  • Social: “A long and healthy life”, measuring using life expectancy at birth
  • Social: “Knowledge”, measured as a combination of mean years of schooling and expected years of schooling

There are many, many more issues, which depending on the point of view might suggest more or less overall ‘human development’. As the UNDP (2016) states: “The HDI simplifies and captures only part of what human development entails. It does not reflect on inequalities, poverty, human security, empowerment, etc. A fuller picture of a country’s level of human development requires analysis of other indicators and information”.

The Sustainable Development Goals

The need to focus on a wide range of development issues was recognised by the United Nations in when the member governments agreed the Millennium Development Goals in the 1990s. The MDGs were a series of eight goals that the world would try to achieve by 2015, including eradicating extreme poverty, ensuring all children go to school, and reducing the suffering from HIV and malaria. You can see how much was achieved in the final report of the UN here.

The successors to the MDGs are the SDGs, or Sustainable Development Goals (sometimes known as the ‘Global Goals’). The SDGs are an expression of the world’s priorities for 2016-2030. There are a total of seventeen goals, each with specific targets which are measured using several indicators (UNDESA, n.d.).

  • The Sustainable Development Goals. Source: UN, n.d.

You can find specific and up-to-date progress information here. By clicking on each of the Goals, you can also find information about the indicators that are used for each.


UN [United Nations], n.d. Communications materials: For use by non-UN entities (without UN emblem).

UNDESA [United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs]. Division For Sustainable Development. Accessed 20 March 2018.

UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], 2016. Human Development Index (HDI). Accessed 20 March 2018.

Multidimensional development and the SDGs: Learning activities


  1. Define the concept of multidimensional human development. [2]
  2. Distinguish between single and multiple component indicators. [2]
  3. State three examples of single component indicators. [3]
  4. What does HDI stand for? [1]
  5. Outline the indicators that are used by the HDI. [3]
  6. What does MDG stand for? [1]
  7. How many MDGs were there? [1]
  8. When did the MDGs operate from and until? [1]
  9. What does SDG stand for?
  10. How many SDGs are there? [1]
  11. What is the period that the SDGs operate from and until? [1]
  12. What is the evidence that the SDGs are focused on multidimensional human development compared to single aspects of human development? [6]
  13. Choose four SDGs that relate to your course. Use this website. Complete a table similar to the one below [10]:


Indicator(s) used to measure progress

Description of the progress to date





Other tasks


Which of the SDGs do you think are the most important? Choose two, and critique the way they are measured. What aspects of human development are not being measured as part of the goal that might have a direct impact on the chances of success?


There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Which is the most important? Imagine that all the goals are in a hot air balloon Hold a balloon debate:

  • Each person finds out about one SDG
  • They present the reasons why that SDG is the most important one
  • After all the goals have been presented, the group votes and throws out the last important goal
  • Repeat the presentations, eliminating the least important goal each time until there is one goal left

Alternatively, hold rounds of four goals at a time, or eliminate more than one goal at each stage – e.g. cut from 17 goals to just the top 5 in the first round, and allow more in-depth argument for the remaining goals.

The most important element of the balloon debate is the criteria used to judge the arguments. While persuasive speaking and connecting with the audience are important, the debate should also have clear links to the area of study. Criteria for this balloon debate could be:

  • The goal statement should be realistic; vague or overly ambitious goals will be thrown out of the balloon
  • The indicators used for the goal should be clear, specific, easy to collect appropriate data
  • The goal should be fundamental to other aspects of human development, i.e. it should be key to multidimensional development. For example, SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) would be hard to achieve without SDG 5 (Gender Equality).

This last goal is perhaps the most important because it helps to develop synthesis. As students make links to other SDGs, they are really making links to other areas of Geography, and the syllabus can be used to reinforce these links.

© Matthew Burdett, 2018. All rights reserved.

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