Asia was the region that progressed fastest in terms of human development since 1970, with China and Indonesia leading the way. Some Arab countries, especially Oman, and many Latin American nations showed marked progress as well, it said.
In its annual report on the quality of life worldwide, the United Nations Development Program said such strides often go unnoticed because development traditionally has been measured only by income. Its study looked at education and health as well.
"Growth alone doesn't always lead to human development," said Jeni Klugman, the report's lead author.
Among the 169 nations whose development was surveyed, Norway came in first on the annual Human Development Index and Zimbabwe was listed last. The United States was fourth.
UNDP Administrator Helen Clark noted in the report's introduction that countries can do much to improve the quality of people's lives, even when economic growth is modest.
"It is now universally accepted that a country's success or an individual's well-being cannot be evaluated by money alone," Clark wrote. "We must also gauge whether people can lead long and healthy lives, whether they have the opportunity to be educated."
There were five Asian countries on the top 10 list of countries showing the most improvement: China (No. 2), Nepal (No. 3), Indonesia (No. 4), Laos (No. 6) and South Korea (No. 8).
Arab countries made up the other five on the list: Oman, now heavily investing its energy earnings into public education and health, was No. 1, followed by Saudi Arabia (No. 5), Tunisia (No. 7), Algeria (No. 9) and Morocco (No. 10).
Life expectancy in Arab countries overall increased from 51 years in 1970 to almost 70 today, the greatest gain of any region. Infant mortality rates in the Arab world plunged from 98 deaths per 1,000 live births to 38, below the current world average of 44. School enrollment in Arab countries nearly doubled over 40 years, from 34 percent in 1970 to 64 percent today.
Latin America and the Caribbean also performed well, with many countries now approaching the United States and European nations in life expectancy and years of schooling, the report found.
Four decades ago, barely half of the region's school-age children were attending classes; today the figure exceeds four-fifths, with some countries at nearly 100 percent enrollment. Average life expectancy in the region rose from 60 to 74 years, and to 79 in Costa Rica, Chile and Cuba.
Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union lagged behind because of the impact of AIDS, wars, and economic crises.
Life expectancy actually declined over the past 40 years in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
The sub-Sahara African nations of Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe ranked even lower on the main index than they did in 1970.
This year's report marks the 20th anniversary of the use of the Human Development Index.
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