Richest 85 as wealthy as poorest 3.5bn people

Improvements in lifespans, education, and incomes are slowing due to natural disasters, misguided government policies, and worsening inequality in a world where the 85 richest people have as much wealth as the 3.5bn poorest, the UN said in its annual human development report.

With nearly a third of humanity poor or vulnerable to poverty, governments need to put a higher priority on creating jobs and providing basic social services, the UN Development Programme said in the report, launched in Tokyo.

It warned that improvements in longevity, education, and income, which are the three main components of the programme’s influential index of human development, are slowing due to worsening inequality and economic disruptions, to droughts and other natural disasters and to poor government policies.

The agency said the solutions are not complicated. “As this report says, it’s not rocket science,” said programme head Helen Clark.

“Where people do address these things, development can come along very, very nicely. Where they haven’t addressed a lot of vulnerabilities and development deficits, as in Syria, it all comes spectacularly unstuck.”

Eradicating poverty is not just about “getting to zero”, Clark said, “but about staying there.”

Most people in most countries are doing better than ever thanks to advances in education, technology, and incomes, the report said.

But it notes a “widespread sense of precariousness in the world today in livelihoods, the environment, personal security, and politics”.

Nearly half of all workers are in insecure or informal employment while some 842m, or about 12%, of all people go hungry.

The report ranks Norway at the top of the Human Development Index, followed by Australia, Switzerland, Netherlands, and the US. Among Asian countries, Singapore leads at No 9, followed by Hong Kong and South Korea at 15. Despite its lead in longevity, Japan is ranked 17th due to its lower income and schooling measures.

The report reflects the growing conviction among many working in global policymaking and poverty alleviation that the gains made in the late 20th century risk being eroded by climate change, a global “race to the bottom” by big corporations that is forcing more and more workers to live on less, and government budgets “balanced on the backs of the poor”, said Khalid Malik, a lead author of the study.

The report, published annually since 1990, is intended to inform and influence policymakers. Governments watch the rankings carefully, and “when they don’t do well they put a lot of pressure on us to change the rankings”, Malik said.

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