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Report: Poor Countries Make Dramatic Progress on Health, Education, Income

Countries: top performers in human development are Norway, Australia, New Zealand and the United States - with Niger, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe at the bottom.

This year's U.N. Human Development Report finds poor countries have made dramatic progress in health, education and basic living standards during the past 40 years.

The 20th anniversary edition report for the first time gathers data on 135 countries covering more than 90 percent of the world's population. The report uses health, education and income as a measure of national achievement.

The analysis presents a sweeping overview of the main trends and patterns in human development between 1970 and 2010. Over this period, the Human Development Report finds remarkable and widespread progress has been made with many of the poorest countries posting the greatest gains.

Senior Research Analyst, Emma Samman, says the global Human Development Index shows health, income and education has risen by 41 percent since 1970 and by 18 percent since 1990. She says the world is a much better place to live in today than it was 40 or 20 years ago.

"We can say with some confidence that people today are more healthy, are better educated and they are wealthier than ever before. Now, average life expectancy has risen from 59 years to 70 years," Samman said. "Combined school enrollments have risen from 55 percent to 70 percent and per-capita incomes have doubled to more than $10,000 in real terms."

Among the 135 countries, Oman has improved most in the Human Development Index during the past 40 years. The other countries included in the so-called Top-10 Movers are China, Nepal, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Tunisia, South Korea, Algeria and Morocco.

The report notes there is no automatic link between economic growth and human progress. Samman notes China is the only country that made the Top Ten list solely due to its economic performance.

"Per-capita income growth in China grew some 2,000 percent over the period, which was truly extraordinary. However, if we look instead at its progress on health and on education, this is in fact far less remarkable," she said. "If we look at a list of the rankings of non-income HDI performance in fact, China's place drops to an unremarkable 77th place."

By contrast, the report notes the next group of 10 leaders, which have most improved during the past 40 years includes several low-income, but high HDI-achieving countries. They usually are not described as success stories.

Among them are Ethiopia, Cambodia and Benin. All have made big gains in education and public health.

The Report cites East Asia, led by China and Indonesia, as the region with the fastest HDI progress since 1970. The Arab countries also posted major gains.

But, the Report notes many countries from sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union lag behind because of the impact of AIDS, conflict, economic upheaval and other factors.

It says life expectancy declined over the past four decades in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia and in six sub-Saharan African countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.