As people may have noted, last weekend Tobias and I were in Stockholm. One of the topics I wanted to post on but couldn’t was the latest Human Development report from the UN. There was plenty of press coverage: here, here, and here
There was even coverage in the blogs, but the tone seemed to be set by Slugger O’Toole who seemed mainly to take issue with Ireland’s rating in the HDI.
Personally I think the issues involved are much bigger than this.
The report itself is a lengthy document but you can find a convenient breakdown into sections here.
A convenient overview can also be found here.
First of all not everything is gloomy. As the report notes:
On average, people in developing countries are healthier, better educated and less impoverished—and they are more likely to live in a multiparty democracy. Since 1990 life expectancy in developing countries has increased by 2 years. There are 3 million fewer child deaths annually and 30 million fewer children out of school. More than 130 million people have escaped extreme poverty. These human development gains should not be underestimated.
However, there are pluses and minuses. In particular 18 countries – 12 in Sub-Saharan Africa and six former Soviet Republics:
“In 2003, 18 countries with a combined population of 460 million people registered lower scores on the human development index (HDI) than in 1990—an unprecedented reversal. In the midst of an increasingly prosperous global economy, 10.7 million children every year do not live to see their fifth birthday, and more than 1 billion people survive in abject poverty on less than $1 a day. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has inflicted the single greatest reversal in human development. In 2003 the pandemic claimed 3 million lives and left another 5 million people infected. Millions of children have been orphaned.”
Aids is certainly an important part of the problem:
Life expectancy gaps are among the most fundamental of all inequalities. Today, someone living in Zambia has less chance of reaching age 30 than someone born in England in 1840—and the gap is widening. HIV/AIDS is at the heart of the problem. In Europe the greatest demographic shock since the Black Death was suffered by France during the First World War. Life expectancy fell by about 16 years. By comparison, Botswana is facing an HIV/AIDSinflicted fall in life expectancy of 31 years. Beyond the immediate human costs, HIV/AIDS is
destroying the social and economic infrastructure on which recovery depends. The disease is not yet curable. But millions of lives could already have been saved had the international community not waited until a grave threat developed
into a fully fledged crisis.
But the problem in fact extends beyond aids, to general population imbalances:
“No indicator captures the divergence in human development opportunity more powerfully than child mortality. Death rates among the world’s children are falling, but the trend is slowing—and the gap between rich and poor countries is widening. This is an area in which slowing trends cost lives. Had the progress of the 1980s been sustained since 1990, there would be 1.2 million fewer child deaths this year. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for a rising share of child deaths: the region represents 20% of births worldwide and 44% of child deaths.”
The world has in fact not one population problem, but two. While some economically highly developed societies are increasingly short of children some other, third world, societies are effectively trapped by extraordinarily high birth rates. Niger, for example, with aTFR of 8.0, or Guinea-Bissau with 7.1, or Mali also with 7.1, or Somalia with 7.0, or Uganda with 6.9 etc etc etc.
So people are not only dying in large numbers, they are also being born in extraordinarily large numbers, and these high birthrates put an enormous strain on everything, including per capita incomes, and human development index scores. This is probably the most important single factor in producing divergence in living standards, and policies to address this are the most important ones in our equality arsenal.
The graph on page 5 (in adobe acrobat) of this link says it all, the life expectancy situation in Sub-Saharan Africa and the former CIS states is completely divergent from everyone else.
And box 1.2 (page nine of the same link) has this to say on the Russian Federation:
Life expectancy at birth in the Russian Federation is among the lowest for industrial countries: 65 years compared with 79 years in Western Europe. Since the early 1990s there has been a marked increase in male mortality over and above the historical trend. The number of additional deaths during 1992–2001 is estimated at 2.5–3 million. In the absence of war, famines or health epidemics there is no recent historical precedent for the scale of the loss.
Russian mortality trends pose one of the gravest human development challenges of the early twenty-first century. Such an acute upsurge in mortality highlights the need for better research to identify the causes of excess male mortality and proactive public policies to identify and protect vulnerable populations during periods of rapid socio-economic transition. Particularly important is the development of institutions perceived as legitimate by the population and capable of overseeing a complex process of economic reform.
Incidentally, as I point out in a comment to this post at New Economist, it’s not only the UN that could be criticised for the way GDP numbers are used, Eurostat too could be counted in this club. Indeed all of this is probably pretty standard practice and it is only the relatively anomalous situation of Ireland that has lead to the controversy (the UK of course has the issue but the other way round). Similar issues also arise in a different way with Luxembourg (which often heads many of the lists).
“The high level of GDP per capita in Luxembourg is partly due to the large share of cross-border workers in total employment. While contributing to GDP, they are not taken into consideration as part of the resident population which is used to calculate GDP per capita.”
In this case it is not multinational corporations, but migrant workers who produce the distortion. In fairness, at the end of the day, as I’m indicating, it may be a little unjust to single out the UN here.
Perhaps the bottom line is that Ireland has enjoyed extraordinary economic success in recent years, as I discuss in my post ‘Europe’s Tiger’.