Los Angeles Times
By Maggie Farley and Kim Murphy
An annual U.N. report on development released today shows that living standards in the formerSoviet Union and sub-Saharan Africa have been steadily declining while the rest of the world gets richer.Norway tops the index that tries to assess nations' economic development, dignity and quality of life, and Niger is atthe bottom. The United States is ranked 10th. Iraq and Afghanistan are not included because of the lack of reliable statistics, and Liechtenstein isabsent because it did not provide income information about its wealthy citizens."The index shows in clear, cold numbers that many countries are not only failing to progress, but are actually slippingbackward, and they will continue on that downhill path unless the international community steps in to help with moreresources and new policies," said Kevin Watkins, head of the United Nations Development Programme's humandevelopment report office.The U.N. delivered the report to each of its 191 member states' missions in New York today and urged the worldleaders gathering at the U.N. next week for a summit on development and U.N. reform to act to stop the slide intodevastation.At the U.N.'s Millennium Summit in 2000, heads of state pledged to change global aid, trade and security policies tohalve poverty by 2015, among other development goals. But many of those promises have yet to be kept."The world has the knowledge, resources and technology to end extreme poverty, but time is running out," said UnitedNations Development Programme administrator Kemal Dervis.Twelve of the world's 18 poorest countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, meaning one out of three people in that regionlive in a country that is worse off than it was in 1990, when the U.N. began to track the standard of living statistics.The decline has been sparked mainly by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, causing South Africa to drop 35 places since 1990and Botswana 21 places.Russia and most of its neighbors of the former Soviet Union continued to lag substantially behind central and westernEurope, though new injections of foreign investment and a new boom in Caspian Sea oil helped check the sharpdownward slide that began with the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991."Overall, the region has improved, because economic growth is very strong," Kalman Mizsei, assistant U.N. secretarygeneral and the UNDP's regional director for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, said in atelephone interview.Yet, a third of the 18 countries that are faring demonstrably worse than they were in 1990 — and all of those not insub-Saharan Africa — are the Soviet successor states, including Russia. Tajikistan fell 21 places; Ukraine, 17; and theRussian Federation, 15.A worrying decline in life expectancy for men and skyrocketing rates of HIV/AIDS were among the contributing factorsfor the decline. Ukraine has one of the fastest-growing rates of HIV infection in the world, with Russia a close second.Other causes were continuing concerns over high levels of corruption in nations from Russia to Central Asia.Though the index doesn't measure directly the level of democracy, Mizsei said, "there is a strong historical correlationbetween open societies and honest societies and their economic progress, so over time, of course, this matters agreat deal."Poverty rates have begun to fall broadly across many former Soviet states, from Kazakhstan to Armenia andAzerbaijan, and many of those economies were among the world's fastest growing regions over the past four years.Russia, scheduled to chair the Group of 8 industrialized nations in 2006, has begun positioning itself to pay off its debtand promote debt forgiveness for developing nations.Already, U.N. officials noted in a summary of the development report, Moscow has written off about $53 billion of itsown Soviet-era claims on African, Asian and Latin American countries and has pledged to forgive an additional $2.2billion in debts.The rapid advancement of the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, also former Soviet republics, has been"something of a miracle," Mizsei said, though their entry into the European Union, he added, has left the region with adivided "political culture."But for all the focus on the declines, the global trend has been one of progress. People in developing countries haveon average become healthier, better educated and less impoverished in the past 15 years — and they are far morelikely to live in a multiparty democracy, the report said.Life expectancy in developing countries has increased by two years overall, while 2 million fewer child deaths occurannually. Meanwhile, 30 million fewer children remain out of school and more than 100 million people have escaped extreme poverty.The report also highlights development success stories such as Vietnam, which has cut income poverty in half andreduced child mortality rates over the last decade. Bangladesh has shown that it is possible for even the world'spoorest countries to make gains in education, income and life expectancy. It is ranked 139th, but has risen about 20%since 1990, as have China and Uganda, the index showed.The report is slightly unconventional. It does not only measure per capita income and basic needs, but also tries togauge human freedom, dignity and the role of people in development. The UNDP has development programs in 166countries.
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