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Distribution Points

Human Development Index Top 20

1. Norway
2. Sweden
3. Australia
4. Canada
5. Netherlands
6. Belgium
7. Iceland
8. United States
9. Japan
10. Ireland
11. Switzerland
12. United Kingdom
13. Finland
14. Austria
15. Luxembourg
16. France
17. Denmark
18. New Zealand
19. Germany
20. Spain

By Anthony Head

Longtime Tokyo resident Anthony Head is a news editor and writer
Developmentally challenged a new UN report shows Japan failing to keep pace with its first-world peers

Last month the United Nations Development Programme issued its latest Human Development Report, an occasion marked in the Japanese press with a few paragraphs about how Japan ranks ninth in the overall index and alluding to their less exalted achievement in gender equality. Human development is a more complex concept than any index can cover, and we all know statistics fall somewhere between lies and even bigger lies. But by focusing on three measurable aspects of a country’s well-being—long and healthy life, education and a decent standard of living—the HDI offers a fairly complete picture of the state of the world’s nations.

So for those who may not have included this mammoth tome on their summer reading list, here are a few morsels.

On the plus side, mortality rates for children under 5 have more than halved in the last 40 years, as has adult illiteracy in the last 25. But phenomenal deprivation remains, with more than 800 million people undernourished and more than 1 billion living on less than $1 a day. Almost 900 million people belong to ethnic, religious or racial groups that face discrimination—whether this includes all the law-abiding, tax-paying foreign residents of Japan who still have to pay for the privilege of re-entering the country is unclear.

The northern European and major English-speaking nations comprise most of the top 20, though two of the G7 nations, France and Germany, rank surprisingly low, while another, Italy, fails to make the cut. And even among these world leaders, one in every five or six adults, on average, lacks “functional literacy skills” (in Portugal nearly half of all adults do). At the other end of the scale, over half the population of Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan are completely illiterate, the rate rising to over 80 percent in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. In all top 20 nations, life expectancy is over 76 (Japan the highest at 81.6), while in most of the bottom 20 it’s barely more than half that length. A child born in Sweden today has only a 7 percent chance of dying before 60; a child born in Zimbabwe has a 75 percent probability of passing away before 40. Robert Mugabe presides over a country where there is now less than a 9 percent chance of surviving to turn 65, the worst average in the world.

Demographic trends show that only five of the top 40 nations have fertility rates of more than two children per woman, while only three of the bottom 40 have less than four per woman. So much for the report’s claim that “People are the real wealth of nations.” How likely is it that, as Indonesia’s population increases by 33 million and Pakistan’s by 55 million over the next decade, these numbers will translate into improved quality of life for their inhabitants?

As for Japan, the report reveals several curious discrepancies between it and other developed nations. Figures on health risks, for example, show Japan has a significantly higher rate of tuberculosis than any other top 20 nation, at 44 in 100,000. The number of “patents granted to residents,” meanwhile, has Australia with 68 per million and Belgium 73, but Japan has 884, which is out of all proportion to the average (surely a reflection of chindogu—the national mania for inventing amusingly impractical devices).

But there are two main areas in which Japan stands out from its Western partners. One is refugees. In 2003, the Netherlands took in 148,000 displaced people, the UK 277,000, Germany 960,000. Japan accepted 2,000. The other is “gender empowerment”—an index in which Japan ranked 38th, the worst among the top 20 nations. In Japan, only 9.9 percent of seats in parliament are held by women, way behind Mozambique (30.0 percent), Uganda (24.7 percent), Tanzania (21.4 percent), and numerous undeveloped nations. Japan has fewer women in government at the ministerial level than Kazakhstan, South Africa and Botswana. And this is despite its ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), one of half a dozen major international human rights instruments signed by nearly all 100 top-ranking nations.

One country among the top 20, however, has not ratified this convention, or others on economic, social and cultural rights (1966) and the rights of the child (1989). But at least the US did ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984).
The report has no index on human hypocrisy, but one can only hope its authors had a lively sense of irony.

See the report online at hdr.undp.org/reports/ global/2004