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UN: Sub-Saharan Africa Living Standards Decline

This year's United Nations Human Development Index shows a decline, over the past 15 years, in living standards in much of sub-Saharan Africa as well as in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Of the 177 countries surveyed, Norway comes out on top, the United States ranks 10th and drought and locust-stricken Niger is at the bottom.

The rankings are based on key indicators such as income, life expectancy and education. On that basis, the report finds 18 of the world's poorest countries, with a total population of 460 million, are worse off today than was the case 15 years ago, when the first report was published.

Senior Policy Adviser and Coordinator of the report, Cecilia Ugaz, says 12 of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Many of these countries have been in conflict over the past eight years and also we have to consider as well the fact that HIV/AIDS is causing lots of problems in terms of life expectancy," she explained. "So, these countries have gone down really dramatically because of that. Reversals in human development are kind of red lights for these countries, in terms of how are they doing to attain the Millennium Development Goals."

The Millennium Development Goals aim to cut poverty in half by 2015. But editors of the report believe there is little chance of that happening in a country such as Botswana, with a life expectancy of just over 36 years.

The six other countries that have suffered reversals since 1990 belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), parts of the former Soviet Union. For example, Ms. Ugaz says Tajikistan has dropped 21 places in the rankings, Ukraine 17 and Russia 15.

"The CIS countries have higher incomes per capita," she noted. "But the problem is also that over recent years, especially in Russia, they have experienced a big mortality crisis. They have actually decreased their life expectancy, especially male life expectancy quite significantly over the past few years."

Male life expectancy in Russia, now ranked 62 on the Development Index, has fallen to 59 years.

The report is critical of trade policies in the industrialized world that, it says, damage growth prospects in developing countries. It says these policies continue to deny millions of people in the world's poorest countries an escape route from poverty and perpetuate inequalities. It notes tariffs imposed on goods from poor countries are higher than those imposed on rich countries.

Furthermore, Ms. Ugaz says developed countries have actually increased agricultural subsidies to their own farmers, hurting some of the world's poorest farmers.

"Many sub-Saharan African countries live on the exports of commodities and agricultural commodities in particular," she said. "And, the share of agricultural commodities has diminished in international trade over the past years, not talking about that the prices also tend to go down."

The report says Africa would be $119 billion richer today if it had the same share of world exports now that it had in 1980. This amount, the report adds, is equal to about five times the amount of aid that African countries receive from industrialized countries.