Surprise, surprise: A very unlikely country tops Africa in new UN quality of life ranking

Just when you thought you had it all figured out, new Human Development Report throws up a few surprises.

MAURITIUS and Seychelles retained their positions as the countries with the highest quality of life in Africa, but in the five years to 2014, Zimbabwe chalked up the fastest average growth in human development, a new UN study shows.

The 2015 Human Development Report released Monday also confirmed that Ethiopia and Rwanda, seen as the continent’s foremost developmental states, have also rapidly raised the living conditions of their nationals between 2010-2014, even as it threw up some more surprises.

In the same five-year period, Zimbabwe - seen largely as a basket case in recent years - had the highest change on the Human Development Index (HDI) ranking on the continent, a 12-place jump, ahead of the Seychelles, Cameroon and Mauritius, data from the report showed.

In its similar index last year, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had showed that Zimbabwe, which has been beset by political divisions that have hurt its economy, had made some notable gains

But given the scale of the country’s recent economic decline, the assertion that over five years the country had the highest average pace continentally in improving the living conditions of its citizens seems counterintuitive. 

When contacted by Mail & Guardian Africa, the UNDP among other factors highlighted a significant rise in life expectancy, at almost four times the sub-Saharan Africa average, and an increase in the expected years of schooling.

It also said the country’s gross national income per capital increased four percentage points faster than the sub-Saharan African average, from $1,442 to $1,662, or a 12% jump. While the body concedes the country’s HDI is below the continental average, it says it did grow at double the pace of the continent.

‘Not a surprise’

“The donor community has supported heavily in these areas through the UN system. These have been complemented by other investments, especially by NGOs, in these sectors,” Amarakoon Bandara, the UNDP’s Senior Economic Advisor for Zimbabwe, told this publication in an e-mail.

“The economy recovered during 2010-12 significantly from the negative levels observed in the previous decade, although has slowed down a bit recently. Since Zimbabwe has lost some ground in the past, the recovery at a faster rate from a lower base is not a surprise.”

The report defines average annual HDI growth column as “smoothed, annualised growth of the HDI in a given period, calculated as the annual compound growth rate.” The report also ranks changes in 10 and 25-year periods.

Overall, the southern African country placed 155th of the 188 countries ranked, ahead of Uganda, Rwanda and Senegal.

The much-watched report is an indicator of how much the continent’s recent robust growth has trickled down to those who most need it. The index is a composite that measures average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development—a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living, the publishers say.

The Republic of the Congo, which has been in the headlines this year over a third term bid by its leader, also ranks in the top five, propped up by its oil resources, but the least improved country over the period was another oil-rich nation that has had a long-time leader, Equatorial Guinea, highlighting further that development conditions are country-specific.

Sierra Leone, despite its battle with Ebola, also ranks in the top five, as does Burkina Faso, which is only now looking to steady its ship following a year of political upheaval that included a short-lived coup. Another country that was ravaged by the fever, Liberia, also performs better than many African countries in changing the living conditions of its people.

Chad, which has consistently ranked near the bottom of the index, is also a strong performer in the five-year period, as is Malawi, suggesting a growth pace from a low base. Countries that usually have higher standards of living are comfortably middle of the pack—Seychelles, Namibia, Mauritius and South Africa. 

Libya’s deterioration following its political crisis sees it ranked at the bottom of the more-indicative five year cycle, as it also slipped 27 places in the overall ranking. Another country that had a revolution, Egypt is also nearer the bottom.

Also surprising is the ranking of Eritrea higher than Botswana, Senegal, Algeria and Tunisia.

The UNDP says some two billion people have been lifted out of low human development in the last 25 years, and urges governments to focus on work to build on that progress.

Some 830 million people live on under $2 a day and are classified as working poor, while over 200 million, including some 74 million youth, are without work, it said.

Titled Work for Human Development, the report calls for “equitable and decent work” for all, saying that beyond job creation, many kinds of work such as unpaid care, voluntary or creative work are important for human development. 

““Employment can be a great driver of progress, but more people need to be able to benefit from sustainable work that helps them and their families to thrive,” Ethiopia prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn said at the launch of the report in the capital Addis Ababa.

The report also notes that globalisation and technological changes are creating divides as highly skilled workers and those with access to technology including to the internet find their opportunities opened up even more, while those without face more uncertainties.

Currently, there are some seven billion mobile phone subscriptions, 2.3 billion of them on smartphones, while some 3.2 billion people have access to the internet. But while 81% of households in developed countries have access to the internet, just 7% in the least developed counties do so.

“There has never been a better time to be a highly skilled worker. Conversely, it is not a good time to be unskilled. This is deepening inequalities,” report author Selim Jahan said.

Editor’s note: This story has since been updated to include the UNDP’s comments on Zimbabwe’s economic growth.

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