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UN: Human Development Declines In CIS, Eastern Europe

  • Robert McMahon

Economic transformations and conflicts have eroded living standards throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. Those are among the findings in the annual report on human development prepared by the UN Development Program. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 30 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Human development can be measured in terms of job opportunities. The freedom to choose a political candidate. The ability of students to learn in their native language. Or a citizen's access to health care.

The UN Development Program, UNDP, this year took these and other factors into consideration to provide a composite look at basic living conditions for people all over the world. And as it has done for the past 10 years, the UNDP has ranked countries according to a human development index -- a prominent and sometimes controversial measuring stick.

This year's survey, released on Thursday, focuses on the relationship between human rights and development. As one of the report's authors, Kate Raworth, told reporters, human rights are not a reward of development, they are essential to the process of achieving it.

The 290-page UNDP report says that more respect for human rights and a genuine commitment to democracy are needed for nations to improve the living standards of their people.

"The major message of the report is that multiparty elections are the start of democracy. It's the first stage. But we need to create inclusive democracies. That means not only the separation of powers, but also open, free civil society, an independent media, and ways of creating participation that draws in minorities."

But the report also says that civil and political rights are not enough for human development if people are not able to earn a decent living wage. For example, countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Romania have made strides in political reforms, helping them emerge as candidates for accession to the European Union. But the UNDP says they were also among a small group of countries which experienced a decline in their human development index in the last 10 to 15 years.

The UNDP says areas of decline include a drop in the life expectancy of males in many countries by about five years, decreasing enrollment in schools, and decay in social services formerly provided by the state.

Raworth says these countries suffered setbacks due to economic difficulties they have faced since the fall of communism. She says the survey shows that countries like these -- India is another example -- can still achieve democratic progress despite economic problems.

"It shows two things: Firstly that the picture is very complex. That countries can do well in some dimensions and go backwards in others. Secondly, it shows that money doesn't have to buy human rights. That you can improve your democratic situation, you can improve participation and other human rights issues, even if the economy is declining."

In 1990, the first year the UNDP made its human development survey, the Soviet Union was given a ranking of 25. Since its dissolution, none of its successor states has come close to that high a ranking. Russia's ranking this year is 62 out of 174 countries.

Below Russia were Georgia (70), Kazakhstan (73), Ukraine (78), Azerbaijan (90), Armenia (93), Kyrgyzstan (98), Turkmenistan (100), Moldova (102), Uzbekistan (106) and Tajikistan (110).

Human rights monitors say for many of these countries it is a failure to accept democratic reforms that has hampered development. Cassandra Cavanaugh, a specialist on Central Asian affairs for Human Rights Watch, says she is not surprised by the low development rankings for most Central Asian countries.

"Yes, there has been a transition going on over the past decade, but it has not been a transition to democracy, it's been a transition to authoritarianism. And in addition, a transition to the concentration of wealth into the hands of very very few people and the impoverishment of the great majority of the populations of these countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus."

Cavanaugh referred to a series of recent elections in the region which were criticized by international monitors for being manipulated by the leadership.

She said this hinders human development because these countries abandon the rule of law, weakening the power of individuals to choose their leaders and improve their economic standing.

"The lack of the rule of law has meant their economies -- instead of flourishing, instead of attracting foreign direct investment, instead of growing and becoming more integrated with the world economy -- they have stagnated. They have become ever more isolated and the investment is not there."

The UNDP survey defines basic human rights as freedom from discrimination, from want, from fear, and from threats to personal safety, in addition to freedom for personal development.

It calculates the ranking by combining factors such as life expectancy, adult literacy, school enrollment, and per capita gross domestic product. This year, for the seventh year in a row, Canada was rated number one and Sierra Leone repeated as worst-ranked country.

The United States was ranked third but was also found to have the highest level of "human poverty" among 18 industrialized nations that were rated. The survey said that in Britain, the United States, and Ireland more than one in five adults are functionally illiterate.

Overall, it said 46 countries have achieved high human development, including Slovenia (29), the Czech Republic (34), Slovakia (40), Hungary (43), Poland (44). Estonia, at number 46, also made the high development list despite being seen as in decline since 1985.

(The full report is available at