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UN: Human Development Still Lagging In Transition Countries

  • Robert McMahon

The United Nations' annual report ranking countries according to living conditions shows most of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe lagging far behind the developed world. Human development in some of the region's countries is seen as falling from communist-era levels. UN correspondent Robert McMahon assesses the report's findings.

United Nations, 11 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A new United Nations report says the transition struggles in many of the former communist nations continue to impede development in human terms, in areas ranging from health to job opportunities.

The UN Development Program's (UNDP) annual ranking of countries, released yesterday (10 July), shows only moderate advances and some alarming setbacks in most countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The few positive trends for the region in the UNDP's human development report were mostly among the countries considered leading candidates for the European Union. Slovenia, for example, maintained its rank of 29 out of the 162 countries profiled, while the Czech Republic was 34 and Slovakia 35, advances for both countries. All three countries ranked the highest among post-communist countries in life expectancy, level of education, and income levels of citizens.

The UNDP report last year focused on the links between human rights and development, but this year's stressed the importance of technology in spurring economic and social changes. The report includes an achievement index that assesses countries in terms of the development of new technologies, access to the Internet, and the availability of basic technologies, such as the telephone.

Finland, a leader in wireless communications, was at the top of the technology index along with the United States, Japan and West European states. But among the states listed as potential leaders in technology were the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania. Other potential leaders included Asian "tiger" economies such as Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Technological proficiency is seen as important by the UN report's authors because it can spur advances in creating vaccines and medicines, increase agricultural productivity and generally raise the standard of living.

Bulgaria and Romania ranked high in technological achievement despite otherwise poor human development ratings. The UNDP says both countries have gone backward in terms of health, education, and income since the days of communism. But they are among many former communist states with high levels of literacy.

One of the report's authors, Kate Raworth, told reporters yesterday that literacy levels are slower to decline than other country measuring-sticks. She said if the countries in transition can invest more vigorously in education, especially science and mathematics, they may be able to rebuild living standards with the help of technology.

"Incomes have fallen but those [transition] countries in the past have invested heavily in scientists and engineers. Whether or not that can still be useful as a way out really means whether today's investment is keeping that alive or whether we are looking at something from the past."

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.

The Baltic states of Estonia (44), Lithuania (47) and Latvia (50) have achieved the highest ranking on the index of former Soviet republics. Russia rose seven places, to 55, due mainly to a rise in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $1,000, to $7,400 in 1999. But life expectancy dropped by half a year to 66.1, by far the lowest of any industrialized country.

Among the region's biggest gainers from last year are Armenia (from 93 to 72), Azerbaijan (from 90 to 79), and Turkmenistan (from 100 to 83). Armenia's rise appeared mostly due to a gain in life expectancy, from 70.7 years to 72.7 years. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan both experienced increases in per capita GDP of more than $700.

The per capita GDP of Kazakhstan rose almost $600 to about $5,000 in 1999. But life expectancy decreased by more than three years to 64.4 years, the lowest in the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan's world ranking dropped from 73 to 75.

Georgia also fell lower on the human development index, from 70 to 76 in the past year. That was due mostly to a drop in per capita GDP from about $3,300 in 1998 to $2,400 in 1999.

Stephen Cohen is a professor of Russian studies and history at New York University and author of the recent book, "Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia." He says Russia and much of the former Soviet Union are coping with poverty levels not seen in the later years of communism.

"Whether you talk about technology and science, or whether you talk about health care and sewage disposal, whether you talk about social entitlements or education or disease or longevity, all the indicators are pointing toward a backward movement. There's no precedence for this, and certainly no precedent in a nuclear country. So I think it's a dramatic and dangerous situation."

Cohen says until there is substantial new investment in Russia, the situation will worsen for normal Russians. He says investment must come from the Russian government.

"I don't think the answer is foreign investment. I don't think foreign investment will ever go to Russia in the dimension that's needed for the country to save itself. The state's going to have to do it."

Cohen says the Russian government will need to re-assert control over assets from natural resources -- possibly through re-nationalization or de-privatization. He says the government will also need to take control of the oligarchies currently transferring abroad enormous amounts of the country's wealth.

(The UN report can be found at the following website: