Sunday, 7 November 2010

Human Development Index

The United Nations Development Programme issued its annual Human Development Report a few days ago. The first report appeared in 1990. The core of the report is the ‘Human Development Index’, which is an attempt to put a number on factors such as education, health care, literacy, life expectancy and so on.
As Amartya Sen explains in his introduction, the concept of a Human Development Index was explicitly devised to respond to Gross National Product as a measurement of the ‘wealth’ of nations. As such, it addresses many of the issues associated with economic, social and cultural rights. Sen admits that ‘the HDI, which proved very popular in public discussion, has a crudeness that is somewhat similar to that of the GNP’.
Helen Clark, the head of UNDP, explains in the introduction:
This Report shows significant progress by most countries in most areas, with the poorest countries often showing the largest gains. While perhaps not a surprise to statisticians, it was far from universally assumed four decades ago that most low-income nations would make the strong strides forward that the record now shows in health, education and (to a lesser extent) income. Not all the trends are positive, as we know too well. Sadly, several countries have moved backwards in absolute HDI achievement since the 1990 Report. These countries offer lessons on the devastating impact of conflict, the AIDS epidemic and economic and political mismanagement. Most suffered from more than one if not all these factors.
The most recent report looks at 135 countries (with 92% of the world’s population) over the 1970-2010 period, and notes that only three of them, Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe, actually declined. The biggest growth has been, perhaps predictably, in China, Indonesia and South Korea, but more surprisingly also in Nepal, Oman and Tunisia. Three countries moved up more than ten places in the latest report: Azerbaijan, up 16 to 67, Timor Leste, up 11 to 120 and Iran, up 10 to 70.
Closer to home, I see that Ireland held on to fifth place, one behind the United States, and far ahead of the United Kingdom, which was down four at 25. I suppose the calculations were made before the Irish Tiger died. At the head of the class, once again, is Norway.
The majority of the top performers in terms of their overall improvement would not make the ‘A list’ in terms of human rights standards. Perhaps this only shows that in our general assessment of human rights performance we are too focused on civil and political rights. Here are the top ten in terms of improvement: Oman, China, Nepal, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Lao PDR, Tunisia, South Korea, Algeria, Morocco. The Human Development Index also measures ‘non-income Human Development’. Here is the top ten by that standard: Oman, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Nigeria, Tunisia, Iran, Ethiopia, South Korea, Indonesia. Most of these states continue to implement the death penalty; only a few of them are members of the International Criminal Court; many are not stellar examples of democratic governance, or of women’s equality; I doubt that any of them allows same sex marriage. The UNDP report concedes, in one of the chapters, that Good things don’t always come together’.
The report contains a special index on gender equality, which is derived from statistics concerning maternal mortality, education, seats in parliament and so on. There, the Netherlands is at the top of the list, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland. Ireland is in 29th place on the Gender Inequality Index. By comparison, Berlusconi’s Italy comes in at 9th place, and Singapore is 10th,, but we are still ahead of the United Kingdom at 32. Iran is number 98, far ahead of countries like Egypt, Indonesia and India (122!). Rwanda scores well for Africa, at 83.
There is even a table that measures ‘perceptions of individual well-being and happiness’. Its calculations are based on such factors as ‘purposeful life’ and ‘treated with respect’. There seems to be little difference if any between rich and poor countries. In Ireland, 87% of people think they have a ‘purposeful life’, compared with 98% in Sierra Leone and 95% in Saudi Arabia. As for ‘treated with respect’, 93% of Irish women respond positively, compared with 69% in Saudi Arabia, 86% in China and 88% in the United States
Thanks to Nathan Derejko.

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