Leading in underdevelopment

How has Britain succeeded – if that is the word – in falling so relatively low in the UN's Human Development measurements?
Jeremy Fox
15 November 2010

Every year since 1990, the United Nations has published its Human Development Report,  a comparative survey of the world’s nations and peoples measured not just by income, but  also by education, health, life expectancy, literacy and so on. The number of measures and the sophistication of the analysis have grown over time, but the objective has remained the same, namely to chart improvements and sometimes - sadly - declines  in human development.

The report’s narrative focuses primarily on the Developing World; but the statistical underpinning embraces all countries and is presented in the form of a table -  the Human Development Index (HDI)  -  in which each country appears in rank order of developmental success. The different components of the HDI  - income, education, health etc. - are also presented in rank order so that readers can identify how well or poorly countries have performed in these sub-categories.

Anyone hungry for a counterbalance to the bombastic notions of politicians and ideologues who increasingly dominate our economic discourse will find nourishment here. UK readers, however,  regardless of political stripe, may find some of the fare unpalatable. Here’s why.

 In the first year of the Report - 1990 - the UK placed tenth overall in human development, behind Japan, Sweden and Canada - amongst others, but ahead of West Germany, Italy, Spain and the USA. Twenty years later, in 2010, we have fallen to 26th position, behind not only these four countries (including a united Germany) but also Israel, Korea, Hong Kong and Greece. Moreover, unlike most of our European neighbours, our relative trajectory has been firmly downward.

 Much of the UK’s current status has been sustained by the growth of national income - fuelled in part, as we are learning to our cost, by public and private debt.

Take out income from the equation and the picture becomes even more disquieting. We manage a 26th position for health - hardly glorious in view of our much-vaunted NHS; but for education - the mantra of the Blair government and now under blistering attack by the Coalition - we have sunk to 37th, behind - among other nations - Rumania, Poland and Cuba. The graph  below compares the UK’s educational performance with that of three Latin-American countries - all of them with left-wing governments of which our political classes and our mainstream media make a point of disapproving.


What the HDI suggests is not simply that the UK is being overhauled - which could be a positive development if other countries were joining us at our high level - but that since around 1995, we have been in a process of decline.

How has this happened? One reason may be that the last fifteen years have coincided with a massive privatisation of our public sphere, and the wholesale delivery of our economy to the neo-liberal Washington Consensus.

What we have witnessed during this period is a withdrawal of Government from its traditional role of fostering the nation’s health, education and general well-being, and the contracting out of those responsibilities to the private sector.   The Coalition’s recent decision to disinvest in Higher Education and its equally disgraceful plan to sell the nation’s forests  are merely the latest insults to our already ragged social fabric.

We should also recognise that the hectoring, authoritarian approach of the Labour Government to national “standards”  has been a manifest failure. What could not be privatised has been bureaucratised into inanition.

Over the last 100 years, the UK has led the world in many things. Radar, aircraft jet engines, the pocket calculator and the World Wide Web were all invented  by citizens of these islands. Time was when much of what we consumed in this country we also made here.

Now almost everything comes from elsewhere, including most of the industrial and electronic engineering that once fed our prosperity. We have been pioneers in the hollowing out of UK industrial creativity and the delivery of the nation to financial speculators.

Before long we may earn recognition as another kind of pioneer: the first country of the modern world to sink back into Underdevelopment.

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