Published on Thursday, June 29, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian
Rich Live Longer, Poor Die Younger
UN report highlights growing gap between developed countries and those ravaged by war, poverty and Aids
by Victoria Brittain and Larry Elliott
|The mapping of the human genome may hold out the prospect of life expectancy in the west nudging 100 but it comes far too late for countries where poverty, war and HIV/Aids have turned the clock back on development by decades, the UN says in a report published today.
Its annual assessment of progress in 174 states finds that the super-rich are not only getting richer, they are living longer as well.
While the income gap between rich and poor countries continues to widen, the lifespan in some sub-Saharan Africa countries is only half that in the developed world.
The human development report (HDR) says the top 200 billionaires had a combined wealth of $1,135bn last, up by $100bn from the previous year. The total income of the 582m people in all the developing countries barely exceeds 10% of that: $146bn.
In the 30 countries considered to have the highest level of human development, life expectancy at birth is more than 75 years. In sub-Saharan Africa it is 48.9 years, falling to 39.1 years in Malawi and 37.9 years in Sierra Leone.
For the first time since it was launched in 1990, the HDR argues that these are inequalities which the UN classes as human rights violations.
A yawning gap
The report breaks new ground this year with the assertion that human rights must include economic, social and cultural rights, not just political and civil rights. Richard Jolly, the report's main author, says this is the most important of the 11 reports produced so far. "We've taken a major conceptual step."
The report says global inequalities have increased in the 20th century "by orders of magnitude out of proportion to anything experienced before". The gap between the incomes of the richest and poorest countries was about 3 to 1 in 1820, 35 to 1 in 1950, 44 to 1 in 1973, and 72 to 1 in 1992. Dr Jolly estimates that a calculation of a comparable figure today would show an even wider discrepancy.
Between 1990 and 1998, per capita income fell in 50 countries, only one of them in the 29 developed states which make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The national disparity between rich and poor is similarly widening in many countries, the report says. In Russia the gulf is dramatic, but even in countries not undergoing great social changes, such as Britain, Sweden and the United States, there gap has been steadily widening for 20 years.
Progress has been made in some areas, it says. Between 1980 and 1999, the proportion of underweight children in developing countries fell from 37% to 27%, and access to safe water has increased from 13% to 71% since 1970.
But while income poverty in countries such as China has fallen dramatically, 1.2bn people - a fifth of the world's population - are living on less than $1 (66p) a day.
In addition, 100m children are estimated to be living or working on the streets and 1.2m women and girls under 18 are trafficked for prostitution each year.
Problems exist in the world's richest countries as well as the poorest, the UN says. In the OECD as a whole, 8m children are undernourished, and in the US 40m people are not covered by health insurance and one in five adults is functionally illiterate.
Britain remains 10th in the UN's human development index, which measures literacy and life expectancy in addition to living standards.
The report calls for bold new approaches to achieving economic and other human rights for all. "Advances in the 21st century will be won by human struggle against divisive values - and against the opposition of entrenched economic and political interests."
The report is upbeat about the surge of change in the human rights climate in many countries, involving many different civil groups, women's groups and media.
This in turn has brought about a new democratic climate far removed from formal election processes with no real participation by ordinary people.
In a special contribution to the report, the Nigerian president, Olesegun Obasanjo, writes of the "evil governance" experienced by his country before its return to civil government.
"The dark years spawned human rights activism . . . the more tyrannical the regime got, the more people became aware of what they were losing by way of freedom of expression and the right to determine how they were to be governed."
These changes, Dr Jolly says, are underpinned by the large number of countries ratifying the various UN conventions on human rights.
The convention on the rights of the child, for instance, has been ratified by every country except two: the US and Somalia.
And countries such as Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Brazil, South Africa and Sri Lanka have adopted special budgets for matters relating to children.
But these steps forward are against the background of some grim realities for children in other areas. For instance, Dr Jolly says, "HIV/Aids is the disaster factor for a dozen or more countries in Africa, pulling down their life expectancy and their ranking in the human development index. Meanwhile life expectancy at the top end is going up".
The cost of war
Botswana, which has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years, has income per capita on a par with Russia and Brazil, but its life expectancy has fallen by around 10 years as a result of the spread of HIV/Aids to more than 25% of the population.
Although the number of conflicts fell during the 90s, the cost to the international community of the seven main wars (not including Kosovo) was $200bn - four times the development aid in any one year.
"Not too surprising then that the volume of development aid went down substantially in the 1990s. The shift of resources away from development may even be contributing to future conflicts - as assistance is withdrawn just when needed to prevent escalation," the UN says.
The United Nations development program's ranking of 174 countries in the 2000 human development index ###