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Developing World Scores on Health, Wealth and Education

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 4 2010 (IPS) - When the Human Development Report (HDR) was introduced back in 1990, it broke new ground, arguing that national development should be measured not simply by income alone but also by life expectancy and literacy.

Primary school children in class, Harar, Ethiopia. Credit: N Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Primary school children in class, Harar, Ethiopia. Credit: N Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The Human Development Index (HDI), a sub-text of the HDR, focused as much on “humans” as it did on “development”, ranking countries on health, education as well as basic living standards that people enjoyed – or were deprived of.

The late Mahbub ul Haq, one of the strongest advocates of the new concept and a visionary in the field, laid the groundwork when he emphatically said that “people are the real wealth of a nation”.

Now, 20 years later, the 2010 HDR released Thursday points out the substantial progress in human development – and specifically in the developing world – where “most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services.”

The top 10 countries in this year’s index, in descending order, are predictably the rich industrialised nations: Norway, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Ireland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden and Germany.

No Stranger to Controversy

Since it was first launched in May 1990, the Human Development Report continued to generate controversy in its initial years, with much of the criticism coming from developing nations.

At one time, the Group of 77 (G77) - the largest single group of developing nations - criticised the report when it included a freedom index "on the basis of selective data which cannot be justified by any empirical measurement".

The G77 said it does not agree either with the concept of quantifying political governance or ranking countries "in any fashion"- be it political, economic, social or cultural.

The outspoken Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad complained his country was placed below Israel, which he said, was one of the world's worst violators of human rights in its occupied territories.

And an angry Sultan of Oman booted out the UNDP resident representative and closed down the UNDP office in Muscat to protest a critical analysis of the Gulf nation in the Human Development Report that year.

For years, the first two places in the HDI alternated between Japan and Canada.

Every time one of the countries lost its first place to the other, the loss generated a political backlash for the ruling party in the losing country.

At least the top 20 countries on the HDI have always been the world's rich nations from the North and the bottom 160 have continued to be occupied by the world's poorer nations.

There were many developing countries that argued the HDI was weighted against the poor because they were not competing on a level playing field.

According to the report, which is traditionally commissioned by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), the top HDI movers – countries that have made the greatest progress in improving their rankings – include China, Indonesia, Laos and South Korea.

But some of the surprises in this category also include Oman, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia – “where progress in the non-income dimensions of human development has been equally remarkable.”

Oman, one of the countries singled out for “improving most in HDI terms” over the past 40 years, is credited with investing its energy earnings in education and public health.

Of the 135 countries surveyed, spanning 1970 through 2010 and covering 92 percent of the world’s people, only three countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia and Zimbabwe – have a lower HDI today than in 1970.

UNDP Administrator Helen Clark told reporters the human development approach has laid the foundation for ideas and concepts which now form part of the development mainstream, such as the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

“It has influenced a generation of policymakers, thinkers, and development practitioners, including in the United Nations,” Clark said.

Overall, she said, the report found “people today are healthier, more educated, and wealthier than ever before”.

Since 1970, average life expectancy has risen from 59 to 70 years while school enrolment grew from 55 to 70 percent.

Per capita incomes, on the other hand, doubled to more than 10,000 dollars in real terms. “People in all regions shared in this progress, though to varying degrees,” Clark noted.

Life expectancy rose by 18 years in the Arab states, between 1970 and 2010, compared to eight years in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Among the poorest countries we have seen some of the greatest human development gains,” said Clark, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand.

According to the report, titled ‘The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development,’ East Asia and the Pacific had by far the strongest overall HDI performance of any region in the world, nearly doubling average HDI attainment over the past 40 years.

The countries in the 40-year analysis include most of Asia and more than 90 percent of the world’s population.

China, the second highest achiever in the world in terms of HDI improvement since 1970, is the only country on the top 10 “movers list” due to income rather than health or education achievements. China’s per capita income increased 21-fold over the last four decades, also lifting hundreds of millions out of income poverty.

Yet China was not among the region’s top performers in improving school enrolment and life expectancy, the report points out.

The survey also found significant progress in human development in most of the nine South Asian countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Nepal and Pakistan.

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union lagged behind due primarily to the impact of AIDS, conflicts, economic upheaval or other factors.

Life expectancy declined over the past 40 years in three countries of the former Soviet Union: Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation – and six countries in sub-Saharan Africa: the DRC, Lesotho, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

According to the report, income inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean remains the world’s highest, with the gap widening most in Argentina, followed by Venezuela and Haiti.

But inequality is narrowing in several countries, notably Brazil and Chile.

Jeni Klugman, lead author of the report, said one important finding from several decades of human development experience is that for lasting improvements on the quality of life of citizens, economic growth alone does not automatically bring improvements in health and education.

The 2010 HDI also includes three new indices: the Inequality-adjusted HDI, the Gender Inequality Index (GII) and the Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI).

The study calls for further research and better data to assess challenges in other aspects of human development, including political empowerment and environmental sustainability.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who collaborated with Haq on the first HDR, said: “Twenty years after the appearance of the first Human Development Report, there is much to celebrate in what has been achieved.”

“But we also have to be alive to ways and means of improving the assessment of old adversities and of recognising – and responding to – new threats that endanger human well-being and freedom,” Sen said.

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