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U.N. Human Development Report Finds Significant Quality Of Life Gains Among Many Developing Countries Over Last 40 Years, But Gaps Persist

“People around the globe are healthier, richer and better educated than ever before, with most developing countries registering huge gains over the last 40 years, a U.N. report [.pdf] released Thursday shows,” the Canadian Press reports.

In its annual Human Development Report, the U.N. Development Program said quality of life improvements are often overlooked because development is traditionally only evaluated in terms of income, but its study also looks at education and health, the news service writes (Snow, 11/4). In addition to these measures, the report, which was released alongside the Human Development Index (HDI) (.pdf), introduces “three innovative indices for gender, inequality and multidimensional poverty,” a UNDP press release states. “These new indicators confirm that progress is possible even without massive resources. Among the ‘top movers’ – countries among the 135 that improved most over the past 40 years – are Ethiopia (#11), Cambodia (#15) and Benin (#18), all of which made big gains in education and public health rather than income,” the release said of the report, which is in its 20th year (11/4). Nepal has made the most improvement in human development since 1980, notes the Economist’s “Daily Chart” blog, which includes a series of graphs depicting data from the report (11/4).

“Globally, life expectancy has risen from 59 years in 1970 to 70 in 2010, the report states. Primary and secondary school enrolment has risen from 55 percent to 70 percent in the same period. While all regions shared in this progress, there were wide variations in scope; for example, life expectancy rose by 18 years in the Arab world but 8 years in sub-Saharan Africa,” the U.N. News Centre writes. In the report’s overview, the authors write: “We see great advances, but changes over the past few decades have by no means been wholly positive … The gaps in human development across the world, while narrowing, remain huge” (11/4).

The report found the progress was slower in several sub-Saharan African and former Soviet Union countries “due to the impact of AIDS, conflict, economic upheaval and other factors,” the press release notes (11/4). Latin American and the Caribbean countries “performed well, with many countries now approaching the United States and European nations in life expectancy and years of schooling, the report found,” the Canadian Press reports (11/4). “East Asia and the Pacific had by far the strongest overall HDI performance of any region in the world, nearly doubling average HDI attainment over the past 40 years,” according to the report, Inter Press Service writes. “China, the second highest achiever in the world in terms of HDI improvement since 1970, is the only country on the top 10 ‘movers list’ due to income rather than health or education achievements. China’s per capita income increased 21-fold over the last four decades, also lifting hundreds of millions out of income poverty,” IPS writes (Deen, 11/4).

In an article focusing on the report’s findings about Arab countries, Agence France-Presse writes that “Arab states make up five of the ten ‘top movers'” on the index. “Oman made the most improvement since 1970, out of the 135 countries ranked, while Saudi Arabia was fifth, Tunisia seventh, Algeria ninth and Morocco 10th, a statement on the report said” (11/4).

“The report says only three countries have a lower human development index than in 1970 – Congo, torn by conflict since the 1990s, Zambia, hit by falls in the price of copper, its main export, and Zimbabwe, where inflation reached 500 billion percent two years ago,” Reuters reports. But Jeni Klugman, the report’s lead author, said overall the findings are “actually quite positive.” Klugman said, “‘What we find is that the world is much better off than it was,’ including a doubling of incomes in real terms over 40 years” (Worsnip, 11/4).

“We have learned that while economic growth is very important, what ultimately matters is using national income to give all people a chance at a longer, healthier and more productive life,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said at the launch of the report on Thursday, according to the press release (11/4). Ban also said there was a “straight line from the Human Development Report to the Millennium Development Goals,” the U.N. News Centre writes (11/4).

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who worked on the first U.N. development report with development advocate Mahbub ul Haq, said: “Twenty years after the appearance of the first Human Development Report, there is much to celebrate in what has been achieved,” IPS reports. Sen added, “But we also have to be alive to ways and means of improving the assessment of old adversities and of recognising – and responding to – new threats that endanger human well-being and freedom” (11/4).