Each year the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) publishes the Human Development Report (HDR) and the recently unveiled 2010 edition marked its 20th anniversary. In a special presentation to a filled-to-capacity giant conference room, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recalled that the very first edition of the HDR initiated with the statement that “people are the real wealth of nations” and, he added, that these words “stunned the world” at the time.
In this spirit the HDR goes beyond mere economic data to analyze qualitative aspects of human existence such as literacy and longevity. The report has, over the past two decades, played a role in the discourse over the development of nations. The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen was one of the economists who spoke at the recent gathering and shared his recollections from having worked on the initial report, giving a perspective on the challenges of the past as well as those that remain for the future.
Notwithstanding the desire to be qualitative in their study, several years ago the HDR contributors developed an index to sum up their analysis of the human condition. The Human Development Index (HDI) that is prominently featured in each annual presentation ranks 169 countries’ well being in a blend of health, education and income indicators.
The top 10 countries in 2010 according to this measurement are: Norway, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Ireland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, and Germany. The bottom 10 countries, not surprisingly, are all in Sub-Saharan Africa: Mali, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Burundi, Niger, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zimbabwe. The latter list reads like an anthology of states beset by belligerency, corruption, ineptness, and exploitation of their own populations.
Countries that place people first are those that have achieved the most progress. The report also notes progress by states that have recovered from conflict and have moved up the development scale. According to UNDP, some countries have developed their own national HDRs to vaunt their achievements.
Each year the eagerly awaited report also has a theme and the 2010 report explored “innovative measurements of poverty, gender and inequality”. According to the report, “Gender inequality remains a major barrier to human development.” The focus on gender is not surprising because everything the UN does has to incorporate a “gender perspective” and the “Gender Inequality Index” (GII) introduced this year adjusts the overall HDI to reflect differences between men and women in such areas as educational attainment, labor force participation and representation in parliaments, as well as maternal mortality – which may seem a non-sequitur to keen observers given that there is no “paternal mortality”.
Nonetheless the GII components include, in addition to a maternal mortality ratio, adolescent fertility, seats in parliament, population with at least a secondary education, labor force participation rate, contraceptive prevalence, antenatal coverage, and births attended by skilled health personnel. Despite progress noted in maternal mortality by the British medical journal The Lancet, which trumped UN data, the UN stealthily uses the maternal mortality theme to advance its family planning agenda. In the discussion of the GII, the report covers maternal mortality under the heading: “Reproductive Health.” The “reproductive” aspect of health, according to the HDR, “is the largest contributor to gender inequality.”
The Netherlands emerged with the most gender equality, followed by Denmark and Sweden while Yemen is at the very bottom, preceded by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger, among 138 countries thus measured.
Interestingly, in examining the disparity of mortality rates among the more developed countries, the HDR noted: “Maternal mortality in the United States is 11 times that of Ireland, the leading country on this front.”
In other words, Ireland has the lowest maternal mortality rate in the world. What was omitted, however, was that in Ireland abortion is not legal and this has not adversely impacted childbearing women.
Excluded from the GII but mentioned elsewhere in the HDR, is the case of “missing women” – a term which refers to the growing disparity between male and female sex ratios at birth in certain countries. The one-child policy in China and the preference for males in China, India and elsewhere in Asia has skewed this measurement on a global basis.
The HDR data for the sex ratio at birth shows the world average rising from 106.0 male births to female births in 1990 to 108.4 in 2010. The norm is considered 105. Over the same period, the ratio for China jumped from 110.4 to 121.2. The ratio also was high in South Korea where the ratio declined from 112.6 to 110.0. The Chinese authorities have made a feeble attempt to help aging parents with only one female offspring. According to the HDR, they are offering unspecified pensions to these parents when they reach 60 years of age.
If “people” are truly to be considered the wealth of nations, input for the true worth of female members of the population will have to be measured with additional standards, perhaps beyond what the UN’s current ideology may be willing to fathom.
Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.