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UN Report Finds Development Progress Even in Poorest Countries

Children play outside a house in a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, 27 May 2010
Children play outside a house in a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, 27 May 2010
Margaret Besheer

In a new report released on Thursday, the United Nations says most developing countries have made dramatic progress in health, education and basic living standards in recent decades, but gaps remain.

The authors of the 2010 Human Development Report go a step beyond just looking at economic indicators such as Gross National Product to evaluate and rank countries.  They work from the premise that people are the real wealth of nations.  So in addition to economic factors, researchers studied progress in the areas of health and education.

U.N. Development Program Administrator Helen Clark, whose division oversees the annual study, spoke about some of the report's findings, which includes a review of the human development record in 135 countries since 1970.

"And the review finds, overall, people today are healthier, more educated, and wealthier than ever before," said Clark.  "Since 1970, globally we have seen average life expectancy rise from 59 to 70 years.  We have seen school enrollment grow from 55 to 70 percent and per capita incomes doubled to more than $10,000 on average in real terms."

Clark said some of the poorest countries have seen some of the greatest human development gains.

"This report shows that the gap in health and education outcomes between developed and developing countries has narrowed significantly over the past four decades, even though the income divide, with a few notable exceptions, has worsened," Clark added.

Researchers studied 135 countries, representing 92 percent of the world's population.  Developed nations Norway, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Ireland led the rankings.

The countries that showed the fastest progress during the past 40 years on economic, health and education fronts are Oman, China, Nepal, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.  Rounding out the top 10 are Laos, Tunisia, South Korea, Algeria and Morocco.

"China, in fact, is the only country in the top 10 in terms of the Human Development Index, which gets there solely on the basis of income performance.  In all other cases, performance in health and education has been very important," said Jeni Klugman, the report's lead author.

Klugman singled out South Korea and Indonesia for their balanced development approach and said that as a result, they have achieved significant success.

But the study's authors found that many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia are lagging.  They attribute this to factors such as armed conflict, HIV/AIDS and economic upheaval.

For instance, in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, life expectancy has declined during the last four decades.  The same trend was found in the DRC, Lesotho, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The authors measured poverty based not only on income, but also on other factors, including poor health and nutrition, bad housing conditions and social exclusion.  Using this multi-dimensional scale, the study concludes that about a third of the world's population, some 1.7 billion people, live in poverty.  That is more than the 1.3 billion that the World Bank estimates live on $1.25 or less per day.

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