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Hard data on Pacific development

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COMMENTS

17 December 2010 10:27

Annmaree O'Keeffe is a Lowy Institute research fellow. She has served as Australian Ambassador for HIV/AIDS and Deputy Director General of AusAID.

It's been 20 years since the first Human Development Report was published by the UN. The core message of that first report was that while economic growth was 'absolutely necessary to meet all essential human objectives', it was also important to see how the growth translated into human development. Two decades later, that message hasn't changed. And the report has survived the criticisms levied at it over the years.

This year is no different, as participants at last Monday's Canberra launch of the latest report saw for themselves. Ron Duncan, Emeritus Professor at the ANU's Crawford School, accused the report of being an exercise in naming and shaming.

It's important to remember that the Human Development Report is basically a report card attempting to quantify elements of human endeavour. It's never easy to apply a formula to human behaviour but the rich history of the Human Development Report over the past 20 years points to the huge contribution it has made to understanding better the development challenge.

Its usefulness lies in its applicability as a tool. It's not an end in itself; but it is an important source of evidence and data needed to support policy change and implementation.

One of the important features of the HDR is its ability to provide revealing, riveting, at times shocking and hopefully catalytic comparisons. Yes, it could be described as 'naming and shaming', but bringing pressure does have its place in the tool kit of international mechanisms to improve the human lot. Too often, development practitioners and economists are seduced by the theory and the grander vision, and the basic realities of daily existence can be lost. The HDR is the annual reminder of those basic realities.

In terms of ranking countries' performance – the Human Development Index — Australia and New Zealand are in a remarkable position. Respectively, they have the second and third highest rankings in the world. But all of our closest neighbours, at least the ones included in the index, are in the bottom half (out of 169). Australia's closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, is in the bottom 20 per cent.

Ranked are Tonga, Fiji, FSM, Indonesia, Timor Leste, Solomon Islands and PNG. Missing – because reliable data was not available and there was uncertainty about the validity of data estimates — are Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati, Cook Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu. Apart from Indonesia and Timor Leste, our other (measured) neighbours aren't improving. Four have shifted further down the index, with PNG having no change since 2005.

As for the non-ranked countries from the region, not being included isn't an indicator of development failure. Standing out in this cluster is Samoa, which has the region's highest life expectancy, the expected years of schooling are second only to Kiribati and it has the third highest GNI per capita.

Looking at one of the three new indices introduced in the 2010 report – a new measure of gender inequality – only two of our neighbours were ranked. This index reveals the tragedy of maternal mortality rates. It also points to another major challenge for some of our neighbours – female representation in Parliament. The level of women's representation in national parliaments in the Pacific is among the lowest in the world. There are no women in the parliaments of Nauru, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and FSM.

Another significant trend in the region relates to demography. Timor Leste, Solomon Islands and PNG are each on track to almost double their populations over the next 20 years. At the same time, the last 20 years has witnessed volatile economic growth across the Pacific. Most countries have had years where they grew by more than 10 per cent and others in which they contracted by more than 4.5 per cent. Overall, growth has been low – unlike population growth. 

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