Norway, Australia and Iceland have the best standards of living in the world and are among the places with the highest levels of human development, while Niger, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone are at the bottom of the list, according to the Human Development Index (HDI), a ranking of well-being in 182 countries and territories compiled from 2007 data by the United Nations Development Programme.
The US ranks at #13, down one spot from the last year’s UNDP ranking, which was done with 2006 data.
The HDI, a summary indicator of people’s well-being that comprises measures of life expectancy, literacy, school enrollment and GDP per capita, is part of the UNDP’s 2009 Human Development Report.
Overall, the report found that despite significant improvements over time, progress among countries in different parts of the world has been uneven. “Many countries have experienced setbacks over recent decades, in the face of economic downturns, conflict-related crises and the HIV and AIDS epidemic,” said Jeni Klugman, the report’s lead author. “And this was even before the impact of the current global financial crisis was felt.”
Extensive Changes in Rankings
The index reveals extensive changes in country rankings across the board. Some 50 countries dropped one or more places in rank relative to 2006, and a similar number moved up – although most countries moved no more than two places. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana gained two positions (because of education gains) while Chad, Mauritius and Swaziland fell two places each.
In terms of positive movement in the rankings, five countries rose three or more places, compared with 2006: China, Colombia, France, Peru and Venezuela. These were largely driven by increases in incomes and life expectancy and – in the cases of China, Colombia and Venezuela - were also because of improvements in education.
Seven countries dropped more than two places in the rankings this year: Belize, Ecuador, Jamaica, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malta, and Tonga.
The bottom three ranked countries in this year’s HDI are Niger, Afghanistan (included for the first time since 1996) and Sierra Leone, respectively. Klugman said that a child born in Niger can expect to live to just more than 50 years, which is 30 years less than a child born in Norway.
Klugman said that differences in per capita income between the best and worst countries are also significant. For every dollar earned per person in Niger, US$85 are earned in Norway.
Wide Gulf Between Top and Bottom
This year’s HDR introduces a new top country category: Very High Human Development. It shows that people living in countries in the higher human development categories can expect to be better educated, to live longer and to earn more: for example, per capita income ranges on average between less than $1,000 in Low HDI countries to more than $37,000 in the Very High HDI countries.
Differences in life expectancy and educational attainment are also striking. For example, a child born in a Low HDI country can expect to live on average just over 50 years – 17 less than in Medium HDI countries, and 30 years less than in the Very High HDI countries. One in five adults in Medium HDI countries and one in two in Low HDI countries are still illiterate, while this is very rare elsewhere.
Trends in the HDI since 1980 show significant advances in human development, with an average improvement of 15 percent in countries’ HDI scores, the UNDP said. The strongest gainers have been China, Iran and Nepal. However, progress has been much more significant in education and health than on the income front.
“While the closing of the gaps in many health and education indicators is good news, the persistent inequality in the distribution of world incomes should continue to be a source of concern for policymakers and international institutions,” added Klugman, who noted that deeper analysis of these trends is being undertaken as background for the 2010 report.