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Annual UN human development report finds halting progress in key measures

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TOKYO - Improvements in life spans, 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 3.5 billion poorest people, the United Nations said Thursday 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 United Nations Development Program said in the report, launched in Tokyo.

It warned that improvements in longevity, education and income, which are the three main components of the UNDP'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. But the agency also said the solutions are not complicated.

"As this report says, it's not rocket science," UNDP head Helen Clark said in an interview before the report's release.

"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 before 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 842 million, or about 12 per cent, of all people go hungry, it said.

The report ranks Norway at the top of the Human Development Index, followed by Australia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United States. Canada ranked 8th. 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 report.

The UNDP report, published annually since 1990, is intended to inform and influence policy makers. 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.

It cites exhaustive data to illustrate the costs both within countries and on a global scale of growing inequality, at a time when the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people.

"Most problems are due to inadequate policies and poor institutions," Malik said. "It's not innate that people have to suffer so much."

Such issues apply not just to the poorest countries but to some of the wealthiest. When the index is adjusted for internal inequalities in health, education and income, some of the wealthiest nations drop out of the UNDP's top 20.

The U.S. falls from 5 to 28 on that list, South Korea drops from 15 to 35, and Japan falls from 17 to 23.

Concerns over inequality and job insecurity are rising in Japan despite its emergence from years of economic doldrums as welfare rolls reach record levels and the poverty among its children has surged past 16 per cent for the first time since the government began keeping track 30 years ago.

Income support, job creation policies and equitable access to health, education and other services, are investments in "human capital" that can secure faster, more sustainable growth in the long run, the report says.

"If you invest in people, if you upgrade your infrastructure and increase the choices available to all you will have a more stable society," Malik said.

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Follow Elaine Kurtenbach on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ekurtenbach

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