Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Environment, Inequality Need Attention: UN

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday,  November 14 / 11

Zack Gross

When the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) and Report come out each year, politicians, social scientists and active citizens want to know one thing above all:  how did Canada do? 

The HDI ranks countries based on national averages of schooling, life expectancy and per capita income. 

In the Chretien years, back in the 1990s, Canada managed to rank first and that, of course, was seen as a great endorsement of our federal government of the time.  We’ve slipped down the pole a bit since the turn of the new century.

At the beginning of this month, the HDI rankings for 187 countries and UN’s comments on the world situation were released.  Norway, Australia and the Netherlands grabbed the first three spots, while the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Niger and Burundi – all Central or West African countries – were relegated to the bottom three positions. 

The other Top Ten spots were taken, in order, by the US, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Germany and Sweden.

This year, the HDI also looks at an Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index.  The US may offer excellent health care options but who has access to it?  Everyone?  An inequalities adjustment, thus, drops some high-ranking countries off the Top Ten, while others benefit from having a more equitable, if not quite as well-off, situation.  The US, for instance, with this factored in, drops to No. 23 from No. 4 and Canada to No. 16 from No. 6.  Meanwhile, Sweden jumps from No. 10 to No. 5.

The UN has also included a Gender Inequality Index, giving highest marks to Sweden for a composite of reproductive health, years of schooling, parliamentary representation and participation in the labour market.  Canada does not appear in the Top Ten.  At the other end of the scale, mostly African, as well as countries in conflict are listed due to very low representation of women and girls in education, paid work and political participation.

Finally, the Multidimensional Poverty Index examines factors at the family level – access to clean water, cooking fuel, health services, basic household goods and housing standards.  The UN estimates that one-third of people in the 109 countries surveyed live in poverty. 

That’s 1.7 billion people! 

The ten poorest countries in the world by this measurement are all in sub-Saharan Africa, including Niger (92% impoverished), Ethiopia (89%) and Mali (87%).  However, given much larger populations in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the largest number of poor people live in South Asia.

The 2011 Report, entitled Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All says that current trends of inequality and deteriorating environmental conditions pose difficult obstacles to progress across the globe.  While developing world economies have grown over the past generation, there are now severe water and air pollution issues, and the effects of climate change, to be dealt with. 

An environmental disaster and resulting decline in growth are possible in the next generation, if not now.  Issues of inequality in particular affect African women who are most vulnerable and most involved in raising food from the land.  Projections for Southern Africa are for a sharp drop in maize (corn) and wheat production over the next twenty years.

United Nations Development Fund Administrator Helen Clark says, in the Foreword to the Human Development Report, that our world of seven billion people has to be aware that all we do has consequences – for the natural environment and for people’s livelihoods.  The Report calls for UN-backed initiatives that would enhance people’s lives, while not harming the environment.  This would include using solar, wind and other renewable energy sources to provide 1.5 billion people, half of them in Africa, with off-the-grid electricity.

 Clark also calls for a .005% tax on international currency trading, using the amount raised to boost aid levels during our global recession. 

“The tax would allow those who benefit most from globalization to help those who benefit least”.  The possible $40 billion raised this way would still be a fraction of what is needed to finance adaptation to climate change in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Asia in particular faces climate change related disaster situations.  Rising sea levels will impact on low-lying countries such as Bangladesh.  Rapid coal-fed industrialization in China and India has created acute air pollution, acid rain and smog with critical effects on human health.  Bangladesh could lose 11% of its land to the sea (a half-metre rise) by 2050, affecting 15 million people. 

Deforestation is affecting the land, while loss of fish stocks is affecting people’s diets and livelihoods.

The UN Report also lists the many advances taking place in today’s world as some countries take the step from “low” to “middle class
,” thanks to investment, industry and jobs.  It points out, however, that this must be done sustainably so that future generations will benefit rather than be saddled with continuing environmental and human rights deficits. 

One hopes that our world’s leadership, currently so focused on cutting programs – while the rich get richer and the poor get relatively poorer – will see the wisdom in thinking beyond themselves.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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