Miserable? UN suggests Norway, Australia, Netherlands in that order

UNITED NATIONS — Norway, Australia, the Netherlands, and the United States are among the best places to live according to the Human Development Report 2011, the UN’s annual rankings of states based on health, wealth, education and gender rights. Rounding out the top ten include New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Lichtenstein, Germany and Sweden.

The now landmark Human Development Index sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is in its 21st year, this edition ranking 187 countries. Japan comes in as number 12, Hong Kong at 13, and South Korea at number 15. The current report states that income distribution has worsened in much of the world with Latin America sadly remaining the most unequal region. Based on the report’s unique methodology, the United States falls from number 4 to 23 and South Korea falls from number 15 to 32.

Restored fishermen's cabins at Henningsvaer, Norway.

Singapore, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom rate numbers 26, 27 and 28 respectively. Sadly, the countries placing in the bottom ten of the list are all in Sub-Saharan Africa; the three bottom are Burundi, Niger and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Not surprisingly South and East Asia still figure prominently when it comes to challenges in gender issues, the environment and education. “The region as a whole is by far the largest contributor to the global increase in greenhouse gas emissions in recent decades, even though East Asia’s per capita emissions are still low,” the Report adds. Mainland China’s “high sulphur-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants contribute to smog and acid rain that have critical effects in health.”

Pollution is blamed for 300,000 death and 20 million cases of respiratory illness annually in China, the report adds. The estimates of health related costs to the high pollution stands at 3 percent of GDP. “Air pollution in China has caused a dramatic rise in asthma,” the report states. China ranks as #101 globally or at about the same level as Thailand.

South Asia, according to the document, “has among the world’s highest levels of urban air pollution, especially in Bangladesh and Pakistan.” Moreover Pakistan ranks amongst the lowest in unequal educational attainment.

The overall “Gender Inequality Index” illustrates how South Asian women have lagged well behind men in education and parliamentary participation. The report equally illustrates that Africa’s poor face the deepest challenges of all; 85 percent don’t have access to proper sanitation and 60 percent have no electricity.

But there are bright spots too. Though Latin America has the highest levels of income inequality, the region has made notable progress in access to education and health services. “Latin America and the Caribbean leads the developing world in public spending on education with 7.7 percent of GDP.”

Naturally such a global socio/economic rankings list has its failings. While it’s wise to look for regions to see where needed and overdue improvements can be made, equally let’s be frank about economic models which many countries have followed. I’m not finger-pointing at states ravished by civil war, ethnic strife, or regular natural disasters. So I don’t mean Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo or even Haiti.

But what about potentially rich places ravished by endemic corruption, state socialism, and the vainglorious arrogance of their leaders such as Bolivia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe? There’s hardly a magic formula to help lift countries from inequality and poverty. Still it also follows that there are places where education, hard work and a free enterprise-oriented government has combined to create the commercial conditions for people to thrive and prosper.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.