Jostling for top UN lifestyle spot concerns only rich countries:

Canadians moan about dropping to eighth place, but a billion fellow mortals face starvation every day

Edmonton Journal
By Senator Douglas Roche

Much has been made of Canada's fall to eighth place in the UN's 2003 Human Development Report released Tuesday. Instead of focusing on Canada's fall from grace, Canadian citizens and political leaders need to examine the gross inequalities that exist between the developed and developing world, in which 1.2 billion people are forced to survive (or not) on less than $1 a day.

The index used by the Human Development Report rates the world's countries on the basis of longevity, literacy, school enrolment and per capita income. Given that Canada had placed first through much of the 1990s, some are concerned that this heralds a decline in the quality of life enjoyed by Canadians. Such a concern is unfounded, since our performance on the index continued to rise this year, and the gap separating Canada from first place Norway is infinitesimal.

However, this type of analysis is indicative of a troubling pattern prevalent in the world's richest nations, which view the index as a competition amongst themselves while ignoring the plight of the world's poorest states, which find themselves at the bottom of the list. Highlighting the human implications of underdevelopment is the report's raison d'etre, and the statistics are only meaningful when viewed in this light.

A comparison of Norway, Canada and Sierra Leone (which scored last out of the 175 countries rated by the UN) is instructive. The life expectancy for a newborn Canadian is currently 79.2 years, a slight edge over Norway's 78.7 years. However, this difference becomes meaningless when we examine Sierra Leone, where life expectancy is less than half of Canada's at 34.5 years.

Adult literacy presents a similar picture: Both Norway and Canada enjoy at least 99-per-cent literacy rates, while Sierra Leone languishes at 36 percent. The pattern continues with GDP per capita, with Norway enjoying a slight advantage at $29,620 US to Canada's $27,130. The average Sierra Leonean can only hope to earn $470 per year.

Three years ago, Millennium Development Goals were developed by the UN and widely endorsed by the developed world as a set of targets for improving the lot of the world's poorest people by 2015. These goals, which address a wide range of issues, from poverty and hunger to education, health, gender equity and environmental sustainability, are the theme of the 2003 Human Development Report. Its assessment of the progress made thus far is cause for deep concern.

While East Asia and Latin America have made significant progress in meeting their 2015 targets, many of the world's poorer regions have struggled just to avoid decline. This is particularly the case in Sub-Saharan Africa, which contains 34 of the world's 42 least developed countries. Increasing poverty rates in this region through the 1990s forced 74 million more people to eke out a living on $1 a day or less. Economic growth was also stagnant during this decade, with per capita growth declining slightly by 0.4 percent. Child mortality, access to water, enrolment in primary education, and hunger, all targets of the Millennium Development Goals, similarly declined in the previous decade. In fact, 54 countries are worse off today than in 1990.

One of the biggest obstacles to development in this region has been rise of the AIDS pandemic, and the social and economic devastation it has left in its wake. Civil wars have also complicated development efforts in Africa, with the deaths of three million people attributed to the recent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Trade barriers erected by the world's richest states have also hampered economic development.

What is the solution to these problems? For a start, the wealthy nations of the world need to take the Millennium Development Goals seriously, particularly the eighth and final goal, which calls on them to lend the assistance to developing countries that is needed if they are to meet the targets outlined by the other seven goals. More than thirty years ago, Canada's Lester Pearson urged rich nations to set aside 0.7 percent of GNP for development aid, a target that has yet to be met by most members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Conservative estimates require an additional $50 billion of aid funding, on top of the existing $56 billion, to meet the goals by 2015. This is substantially less than the $165 billion that would be generated if all OECD members adhered to the 0.7 percent standard.

States must also be willing to contribute to peace-building in Africa, which must include volunteering their troops as peacekeepers when necessary. Even more welcome would be diplomatic interventions aimed at conflict prevention, to avoid losses of life from violent conflict.

Finally, trade barriers which prevent African producers from competing in Western markets need to be torn down. The EU, which pays 100 times more in subsidies for each European cow than it gives in aid to each Sub-Saharan African, is a particularly notorious offender, but Canada also maintains agricultural subsidies for its farmers.

It is time for a shift in thinking in the Western world. We need to put away the narcissistic comparisons of "quality of life" which have typically characterized analyses of the Human Development Report, and focus on the real issue: how to improve the lives of over a billion people forced to survive daily on less than the price of a cup of coffee.