Canada Up, U.S. Down in Development List

UPI – Canada up, U.S. down in development list

Canada has leapfrogged from eighth to fourth place in the United Nations’ “Human Development Report 2004” while the United States slipped a notch and Ireland nudged Switzerland from the top 10 list. The 367-page report by the U.N. Development Program released Thursday, said Dublin skipped from 12th place last year over Denmark, which plummeted to No. 17.

The top 10 this year are Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland, United States, Japan and Ireland. The bottom five of Burundi, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Sierra Leone remained unchanged.

The HDI is a composite index that measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions: a long and healthy life measured by life expectancy at birth; knowledge as measured by the adult literacy rate and the combined gross enrollment ratio for schools, and a decent standard of living as measured by gross domestic product per capita.

My guess is words like “plummeted” distort the reality here; the differences among the most developed countries have to be tiny, indeed. Still, I’m a bit dubious of a ranking system that puts Ireland ahead of Switzerland. Some of the statistics employed here are debatable.

Life expectancy at birth is a questionable way of measuring “a long and healthy life,” as different states count it differently. Does one count aborted fetuses? Does one count premature infants who die minutes after delivery? Or who make it past an artificial deadline because of futile heroic measures?

Estimation of the adult literacy rate is difficult and, among developed countries, varies in the range of 97-99%, hardly particularly significant. Educational attainment is somewhat questionable, since different states use different age cutoff points. Societies that only mandate 10 years of school are going to have lower thresholds than those that mandate 13.

GDP per capita is the easiest way to measure economic prosperity, but hardly definitive. The main drawback is that it is a mere arithmetic average and doesn’t account for individual variation. For example, the petroleum rich states used to rank quite high on the list, even though the wealth was concentrated in the hands of the elites with relative poverty among the vast majority of the citizenry. Again, though, this probably matters less within a given category of states than at the aggregate level. Indeed, the US probably benefits from that as a measure.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CJ says:

    I’m from Canada but have worked in the U.S. off and on during the past 25 years. I can assure you that this survey is totally bogus. The income gap between Canada and the USA is widening. It is approximately equal to the respective value of the two currencies — that is, Canadians make about 70% of what Americans do. (The first time I was ever sent to work in the U.S. was in 1976, when the Canadian dollar was worth US$1.06. It has since lost fully one-third of its value.) The quality of life of Americans is also improving, particularly in the areas of crime and environmental pollution. Crime and taxes have both been rising in Canada, but falling or holding steady in the USA. The desirability of American universities and careers as compared to Canadian is increasing. Canadian political and business elites are sending as many of their children as possible to U.S. universities, and the “brain drain” of talented Canadians is a constant flow.

  2. Jem says:

    I was struck by the following:

    “The report called for nations with multi-ethnic or religious populations to establish “asymmetric” federalist structures to allow different groups to maintain both their own identity and a sense of belonging to the nation as a whole. ”

    “The focus of this year’s report is the value of population diversity after several decades of large-scale international migration”

    Given that the political ends are the “focus” of the report, how much weight is given to those factors in the overall rankings? And how does one measure diversity, if the “focus” of the report is a ranking criterion?

    I’m not a social scientist, but it seems to me that it would be difficult to develop statistically viable criteria…