For the developing world, the news in the 2013 United Nations Human Development Report is almost all good. (More on that “almost” later.) The title of the report, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, sets the tone. New players with global clout, increased South-South trade and investment, strengthening regional institutions and some new government policies are among the factors at play.
Over the last decade, “all countries accelerated their achievements in the education, health and income dimensions as measured in the Human Development Index — to the extent that no country for which data was available had a lower HDI value in 2012 than in 2000,” the report by the UN Development Program found. That is remarkable, given the levels of recent turmoil in some regions where human development was already precarious.
The trick now is how to keep this trend moving in a positive direction. The report says that developing nations, some with encouraging current statistics but scant safety nets or underlying strengths to fall back on if things go wrong, still have significant challenges. They must strive for greater social equities, including enhancing the equality and rights of women; give greater voice to citizens; confront environmental pressures; and manage demographic changes, from large youth bulges with young people unable to find jobs, to policies and services for aging people who are the beneficiaries of healthier living.
In some of these tasks, developing nations have to work with and contribute positively to coordinated international action, “whether they be poverty eradication, climate change or peace and security,” the report advises. Recent experience in some international bodies, on trade and climate change in particular, indicates that there is a long way to go on this front, as certain large countries of the global South have demanded concessions that the North refuses to accept, and northern countries, including the United States, have stonewalled consensus.
The concept and creation of the annual UN Human Development Reports was mostly the work more than two decades ago of a Pakistani economist, Mahbub ul Haq, who with like-minded thinkers wanted to get beyond the usual methods of measuring progress, such as through gross domestic product, trade figures, population numbers or other statistics. He wanted the reports to look at the lives of people and use those as a guide to the progress (or not) of nations. The first study was published in 1990.
This year’s report is still packed with statistics — not a bad thing, because some measurements provide evidence for very human campaigns. For example, advocates for women have argued for years that family size and the health of children owes much to educated mothers. In a chart covering 13 nations, the 2013 report demonstrates this graphically. Two African examples from the last decade or so are also instructive. Both made progress despite particularly brutal conflicts and their aftermath.
In Liberia in 2009, deaths among children under age 5 stood at 164 per 1,000 live births when mothers had no schooling, and dropped to 131 deaths when a mother had a secondary education. Fertility (the number of children a woman bears in her reproductive years) was 7.1 among women with no education but 3.9 with a secondary or higher level.
Similar figures for Rwanda are even more compelling. In 2007-2008, Rwanda had an under-five mortality rate higher than Liberia’s, at 174 in 1,000 births when mothers had not been to school. But with a high school or higher education, the number of early childhood deaths was 43 in 1,000 live births. Fertility among Rwandan women measured at 6.1 children to an unschooled mother and 3.8 for a woman with a secondary or higher education.
Economically, the new report is replete with trade and investment statistics showing the rising South-South flows, attesting to growth in the most advanced developing countries and indicating how they can help other nations grow, lessening dependence on the industrialized world.
“Some of the largest countries have made rapid advances, notably Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey,” the report said. “But there has also been substantial progress in smaller economies, such as Bangladesh, Chile, Ghana, Mauritius, Rwanda and Tunisia.
“For the first time in 150 years, the combined output of the developing world’s three leading economies — Brazil, China and India — is about equal to the combined GDP of the longstanding industrial powers of the North — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States,” the report said. “This represents a dramatic rebalancing of global economic power.”
Here is where the “almost” comes in and raises questions. Even as this report was going to press, India’s gross domestic product growth forecast was being slashed, and the country was headed toward a turbulent national election season with hundreds of millions of people still mired in abject poverty, illiteracy and poor health. In Brazil, industrial growth was shrinking slightly, and some commentators worried about the country becoming too dependent on commodity exports. New leaders in China were facing myriad political and social problems and some fluctuations in economic indicators.
Yet even if other less prosperous developing countries continue to attract Chinese, Indian and Brazilian money, are these investments contributing to the human development of Liberia or Ethiopia or Zambia, where there have been protests against Chinese mining companies, as there have been recently in Burma? Or are these investments intended only to shore up future supplies of raw materials, food and energy supplies for the investing countries? Jobs are often filled entirely by imported Chinese workers who are segregated from local society, a complaint I heard in Liberia, for example.
The 2013 report does put the onus on countries and governments to take responsibility for not only adopting and carrying out policies that contribute directly to human development, particularly in education, health and the status of women, but also for overcoming the obsession with national sovereignty, which often causes governments to reject outside interventions or opportunities for cooperative action, however well intended.
In fact, governments take up so much space in this report that the hardest workers in the cause of human development, the nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups at large, get scant attention. There are only passing references to “people friendly policies” and a few mentions of notable nonprofit group triumphs, like the programs of the Grameen Bank and BRAC in Bangladesh. These groups have helped Bangladesh reach levels of development that meet critical Millennium Development Goals, an achievement that few would have expected of this nation, given that it was once written off as a basket case.
The report mentions the advantages of international Internet connectivity but, as all UN reports tend to do, it avoids pointed criticism of governments that block this tool when democracy is the subject of bloggers or put restrictions on nongovernmental organizations that try to plug into or get help from international networks.
UN Human Development Reports attract a lot of attention with their annual Human Development Index, which rank nations on human factors and economic numbers. Nations are divided into four categories: Very High Human Development, High Human Development, Medium Human Development and Low Human Development. The results in the 2013 index are predictable at the top and bottom of the chart, though comparisons and movements up and down the ladder hold some surprises. Results from 185 countries are included.
This year, the top 10 countries are all industrial ones of the global North, in this order: Norway, Australia, the US, Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan. At the other end, from bottom up, are all African nations: Mozambique, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Eritrea, Central African Republic, Guinea, Burundi, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. Among the economic powerhouses of the developing world, Brazil alone classifies as a nation with high human development, ranking 85th. China, at 101, is in the medium human development category, along with India at 136.
The report said that “one consequence of the rise of the South is that most countries now have growing fiscal and policy space to set bold targets.” It added: “More countries are unencumbered by conditionalities often attached to international aid and resource transfers, and the recent rise in commodity prices has reversed a long decline in terms of trade.” Now, the report concluded, rising economic strength “must be matched by a full commitment to human development.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.