Columnists

Thomas Ponniah
The global state of humanity

| April 3, 2013
The global state of humanity

The United States has a higher level of human development than Canada. The latest United Nations Human Development Report compiles statistics on life expectancy, education and access to human resources in order to compose the Human Development Index (HDI). The U.S. ranked third in the world in terms of human development while Canada ranked eleventh. This is sad news for Canada because within the 13-year tenure of the previous Liberal government (1993-2006) Canada ranked number 1 in the world for seven consecutive years (1994-2000). Under the Conservative government, reigning from 2006 onwards, Canada has fallen out of the top 10. It is not difficult to believe that the relationship between government social policy and HDI ranking is causal.

While the news above should give every American and every admirer of the United States reason to cheer, the celebration should perhaps not go too late into the night. When the HDI is adjusted for inequality, the study notes that the U.S. falls to number 16, Canada falls to number 15 while the other top countries in the world -- Norway, Australia, Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan -- remain within the top nine. When HDI is adjusted for gender disparity -- meaning inclusion of statistics on the maternal mortality rate, adolescent fertility rate, seats in national parliament, female population with at least secondary education, and labour force participation -- Canada descends to number 18 and the U.S. plummets to number 42 in the world.

The United Nations account offers us a further array of diverse, fascinating statistics: for example, in terms of the international assessment of education quality of 15-year-olds, Canadian students outperformed all the top 11 HDI countries in the world in terms of reading, was second only to Switzerland in math and was third in science behind Japan and New Zealand. With such stellar educational numbers it is hard to understand why both the conservative and liberal Canadian media are so hard on their teachers and why the left party is so silent in their defence. According to the statistics, Canadian primary and secondary school teachers are in general producing relatively high quality students.

On the other end of the HDI spectrum, for those who believe that revolutions, civil wars or military coups emerge from destitution, they should keep an eye on Burkina Faso, Chad, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger; that is, the countries that ranked lowest in terms of the HDI. In terms of situations of high inequality -- measured by the Income Gini Coefficient -- students of social disintegration should look to the Seychelles Islands, Namibia, Comoros, and South Africa. For those who think that lack of trust in national government is a key indicator of future social uprisings, keep a close eye on Latvia, Romania and Greece since they have the lowest levels of confidence in their leadership.

For numbers on the economic revolution of our time, we should all study Brazil, China and India, which, as mentioned in my last column, will by 2020 surpass the combined economic production of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Finally, all progressives in the global North and South, should note the inquiry's admonition, "very few countries have both a high HDI value and an ecological footprint below the world average biocapacity," meaning that the economic production and consumption system that the wealthy nations are utilizing to achieve a high human development score is devouring the planet. "Human development" as currently measured by the UN document comes at a lethal future cost, therefore wealthy countries must not perpetuate their models while poor countries must not emulate the prevalent ones.

There are many additional, important statistics to evaluate in the United Nations Human Development Report. All thoughtful people should read this study: it remains the most interesting and provocative annual statistical assessment of the global state of humanity.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.