Developing World Scores on Health, Wealth and Education

By Thalif Deen

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.

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.

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