The United Nations Human Development Report 2009: A Very Brief Look

Written by Heather Wilhelm

On Monday, the United Nations (UN) released their Human Development Report (HDR) for 2009, ranking 182 countries into their respective places based on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Human Development Index (HDI) of these countries.  GDP is defined as the total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, equal to total consumer, investment and government spending, plus the value of exports, minus the value of imports.  In layman’s terms, it measures a country’s economic performance on a yearly basis.  Since its inception in 1990, the HDR has reached beyond simply looking at a country’s GDP and has created the HDI which measures three dimensions of human development:  life expectancy, literacy and gross enrolment in education, and having a decent standard of living.  While it is easy to argue that these measurements are not an effective way to gauge the success or failure of a country in a numbered ranking system (what of gender, social services, child welfare), for the purpose of this article, let’s just look at the gross difference between those living at the top (Norway, Australia, Iceland and Canada ranked 1 through 4) and the bottom (Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Niger in spots 180-182).

While it should be noted that this Report was created using 2007 statistics before the current economic crisis, it is still very apparent that there are stark disparities between those countries at the top of the list, and those at the bottom.  For instance, the average life expectancy in Niger is 50 years, which is a full 30 years less than the life expectancy in 4th place Canada.  For every dollar earned in Niger, eighty-five (85) dollars is earned in 1st place Norway.  It is believed that more than half the population in the lowest ranking 24 countries are illiterate.  These kinds of statistics put on paper what most students of global studies already know – we do not live in a world of equality and justice.  These yearly reports simply reiterate that while the privileged can expect to enjoy a long life with education and excellent standards of living the poor seem to be destined to remain in a position of poverty, illiteracy and shortened life expectancies.  I’ve provided a very brief background on the UNHDR for you, and I encourage you to click the link that follows and read a bit more on your own…the results will hopefully shock you back into reality – I know it always does for me.

Click here to view the full Human Development Report 2009.



Where did the conflict begin?

Lately, a friend and I have been discussing the economic factors of conflict. How does the economy precipitate conflict, and (how) can altering economic factors reduce the fighting? Does economic growth play a role in conflict, and what role does it play?

These are answers that I am neither fully prepared nor educated to give; not that they could even be started to be answered entirely in one tiny blog post… but bear with me.

One thought that came out of the discussion revolved around the idea of conflict being caused by rates of economic growth and trying to trace the “real” origins of a conflict. Essentially, that economic growth (or lack thereof) has the ability to cause or cease conflict. Economic factors definitely play a role, but I don’t think it’s as simple as some sort of linear causality. Without economic factors, there would be little incentive for many players to war (ie. $), and no weapons to do it with. This is true, but it is also dependent on a whole host of other factors.

Where do you trace the true “beginning” of a conflict? It’s next to impossible. If you look around to any of the wars or genocides or mass abuses happening in the world right now, resources are definitely involved, but are they the cause of the conflict?

Economic growth can affect a conflict because a country with poor economic growth has little to pay its civil workers. If you have an unsatisfied civil sector, you have corruption. If you have corruption, you have the ability to underhandedly steal resources from the state or population for profit. It’s all connected, but not always so cut and dry. Sometimes, as can be seen in some parts of North America, highly paid civil workers are still corrupt and stealing resources. In this case, it can be bad leadership, or incomprehensible property rights and legalities, but it is still not just directly economic factors.

A “poor” country with good leadership is possibly much less likely to conflict than a “rich” country with bad leadership. But then again, a richer country probably has developed a more complex legal system, and therefore has more leaps to jump to conflict, or legal ways around the extraction of resources, and apt policing systems that lessen outbreaks of direct conflict.

Clearly, each conflict is complex, and highly individual with many overlapping “causes” and fuels. Trying to find a true singular cause is really impossible. Many of the modern day conflicts are rooted in political/economic choices and decisions that are hundreds of years in the making. Economics can’t be separated from history, which can’t be separated from political choices, which can’t be separated from the daily life experienced by those living in the conflict.

So how do we stop conflict then?

There is not some simple, band-aid solution that can be cast onto each conflict. There is no one way to peacebuilding. It can start with removing incentives to conflict. Reduced incentives means no economic payoff, which means no money to buy weapons, and no money to be made from conflict.

It also takes creating incentives. Incentives to follow laws, incentives to be socially inclusive, incentives to reduce corruption… and so on. But it’s much more than that. It also involves just political leadership. It involves societal healing for past and current wrongs. It involves societal change and education towards conflict mediation and transformation strategies. It involves society become engaged in the peace process and wanting to find solutions that work for them. The list goes on and on.

Economic factors play a role in all conflict, but they should never be the seen as the only cause or solution to the conflict.

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Economic Growth and the ever-increasing GDPs

Economic development and growth is basically the prime goal of every nation on the planet. Billions and billions of dollars are been spent annually on economic growth projects worldwide.

In some development circles, there is a thought that if the economy is doing well– the lives of those living in the economy will be better. This is often referred to as the “trickle-down effect”. That prosperity will trickle down to those less fortunate.

Unfortunately, this is not a reliable nor sustainable way to ensure that basic needs are being met or any real indication of anything other than the ability to yield high market value for the goods and services produced.

If the goal is to be ever-increasing– where does it ever end? When do we stop increasing our economies, or does it ever stop? Are we doomed to a never-ending race for the largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP)?

Some of the countries with the fastest growing GDPs are still experiencing tremendous poverty among their poorest inhabitants and the increase in GDP does not appear to correlate with any increase in human rights protection or poverty reduction or any semblance of general well-being. Within the top ten countries with the fastest growing GDP sit Macau, Angola, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Equatorial Guinea, Anguilla, Republic of Congo, Solomon Islands, Mongolia, China, Armenia, Liberia and Peru. Afghanistan currently sits as the 16th fastest growing economy if that gives you any indication of how much economic growth translates into poverty reduction, respect for human rights or general well-being of the population.


So maybe economic growth doesn’t translate into well-being, but what about having a large GDP? Among the countries with the largest GDPs sit China, Russia, and India. Poverty is still a massive problem in all three areas, and human rights violations frequent occurrences. Clearly then, a large GDP doesn’t in and of itself cause the trickle down of development.

So if the ultimate goal is ever-increasing GDP or ever-increasing market value of goods and services produced; who will be the ones consuming this ever-increasing amount, where will the waste go, and where will the raw materials come from to supply this ever-increasing amount of productivity?

Why is the measure of how much can be produced the number one goal of almost every country and enforced as a primary goal in the poorer nations through global development programs by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank? Wouldn’t the measure of general well-being, or respect for human rights, or lack of poverty, or even the level of democracy rank higher than production?

So why don’t governments change this goal to something more sustainable in the long-term?

Mike Nickerson, who founded the Sustainability Project, suggests a different goal for governments; one of long-term well-being.

To get there our activities must:
“1) Use materials in continuous cycles.
2) Use continuously reliable sources of energy.
3) Come mainly from the qualities of being human (ie. creativity, communication, coordination, appreciation, and spiritual and intellectual development).”
*** To which I add 4) Respect the human rights of all affected populations.

“Long-term well-being is diminished when activities:
4) Require continual inputs of non-renewable resources.
5) Use renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal.
6) Cause cumulative degradation of the environment.
7) Require resources in quantities that undermine other people’s well being.
8) Lead to the extinction of other life forms.”

I like to think of it as respecting the human rights of all those on the planet, as well those who will be here in the future. It’s not about global warming, or native rights, or some isolated issue. It is a holistic issue involving all our rights. If one of our nationals within our country’s rights are infringed upon, then all our rights have been infringed upon. We need to act together, no matter who we are. If we don’t speak up for the rights of others, who will speak for us when our rights are trampled on?

If our air is polluted, our rights are being infringed upon. If our water is polluted, our rights are being infringed upon. This is a global issue. Our actions affect the world, and their actions affect us.

Until our goals become to respect human rights and to have long-term well-being– we will not progress as humans. We will just become more efficient at producing crap that we don’t even really need or want that will in the end just kill us all.

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The other side of assistance: The neoliberal agenda in Uganda

Uganda has been hailed as an economic success story and the “development darling” of Africa by many international donors. Despite successes in certain sectors and the adoption of an official Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) sponsored by the World Bank (WB), the poorest of the poor in Uganda have not necessarily experienced ‘poverty eradication’. Sustained growth in the country has averaged 7.8% since 2000, and official World Bank statistics say that as a result of this economic growth, poverty declined from 56% in 1992 to 31% in 2006 (WB, Country Brief, 2008). Positive statistics are so often used by the international financial institutions (IFIs) to inflate their current projects and to play up the successes of neoliberal reforms to serve their own gain. The focus on economic growth and its ‘success’ in Uganda has resulted in ignoring massive human rights violations being committed by the Ugandan government on its own people (with development overtaking peacebuilding) and the impact that conditional aid has actually had on the poorest of the poor. Loan debts will be paid by the poor and not the human rights abusing government who borrowed it through structural adjustment programs that guarantee the international community will continue to have a hand in Uganda for decades to come.

            Uganda has been embroiled in conflict with regional parties and the cult-like rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army for decades. The 1960s were years of euphoria as Africa experienced its so-called “decade of independence” from colonial rule. A series of successive dictatorships (including Idi Amin and Milton Obote) and their quest for power prompted periods of political instability and insecurity, causing the economy to go into a tailspin. Structural adjustment reforms were first implemented under Obote, who prioritized the external logic of the global markets over the long-term developmental needs of the national economy (Kiiza et al., 2003; 5). Comprehensive pro-market economic reforms were implemented in the late 1980s under Museveni, reducing the onerous taxes and economic restrictions that were in effect (Selassie, 2004; 5).

Uganda experienced declines in industrial production and agricultural output by the mid 1980s as a result of economic mismanagement and the pursuit of interventionist policies that were ill-suited to the level of existing state capacity, skill and political instability (Pitcher, 2004;383). Museveni took over the country in 1985 after a successful coup, and immediately launched an economic recovery program which included a comprehensive package of currency devaluation, control over inflation and spending and a reduction of state intervention in the economy. The Ugandan government haggled over the conditions attached to the loans, reluctant to push ahead with reforms they felt were not designed by them but the IMF. By 1992, the Ugandan government began “owning” its reforms, controlling inflation to achieve higher growth rates and to attract private sector investment[1]. By 1998 the government had mostly privatized its assets, crafting an intense ideological message that emphasized the gains of privatization to improve the perception of the policies among the public. The government even went so far as to hire a drama group and public relations firm to do this (Pitcher, 2004; 385).

The Usefulness of Debt Relief

            Since the 1960s, the WB has made more than $4.8 billion in loans and credits and about $600 million in grants to the government of Uganda (WB, Country Brief, 2008). This aid was often conditional on the implementation of certain structural adjustment programs by the Ugandan government, which involve two main components: macroeconomic reforms and institutional reforms. Macroeconomic reforms include the removal of trade restrictions, the devaluation of local currency, reduced subsidies and public sector wage freezes. The institutional reforms involve the privatization of public enterprises, the trimming of the civil service, and the promotion of export through incentives. Uganda qualified under the WB’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative in 1997, making it eligible to try and reduce its debt to a sustainable level. The conditions of the HIPC involved implementing structural adjustment for three years non-stop, at which point debt would be reduced by 67%. The debt payments remained unsustainable, making Uganda then eligible to enter stage two of the HIPC, where it faced another 3 years of structural adjustment. At the end of this adjustment, the debt was then to be reduced by 80%. Uganda at this point was still overwhelmed with debt, making it eligible for the Enhanced HIPC initiative offered by the WB in February of 2000 (WB, Country Briefing, 2008).

After facing criticism from many parties the World Bank revamped its initiatives to be more reflexive of the poverty faced by the supported populations and to include poverty reduction strategies in their plans. The Enhanced HIPC initiative insisted that eligible countries develop a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), a plan showing exactly what the country planned to do with its savings with the poorest of the poor allegedly in mind. The PRSP is mandated to be country-driven, results oriented, comprehensive, partnership oriented and based on the long term perspective of poverty reduction. The PRSP prescribes four broad goals and transformations involved in eradicating poverty: creating an enabling environment for sustainable economic growth and transformation, promoting good governance and security, directly increasing the ability of the poor to raise their incomes, and directly increasing the quality of life of the poor (Nyamugasira and Rowden, 2002). Uganda also received the supplement to the HIPC initiative, the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI) in 2006, aimed at providing 100% debt relief by the WB, the IMF, and the International Development Association (IDA) to help Uganda attain its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In reality this 100% debt relief, meant only for loans contracted prior to 2005, left Uganda with an estimated debt service payment of over a million dollar a month that is only steadily climbing with time (WB, Estimated Debt Service Payments, 2008).

The PRSP is flawed, and there seems to be little institutional learning from evaluations of previous SAPs in new policy designs. The PRSP supports major privatization and deregulatory reforms in health, education, water and sanitation sectors, arguably the most important sectors to poverty reduction. New loans extended by the WB and IMF neglected the impact of privatization of water on people’s access to clean water. Privatization led to increased prices of water for individuals, reducing their access, and undermining the health-related poverty-reduction goals of the PRSP. The trade sector was also conflicting as the WB and the IMF lending policies contradicted external processes and institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). For example, IMF and WB loans insisted that Uganda must privatize key utilities and markets stipulating that regulation “will eventually follow”. WTO rules, which Uganda is subject to, do not permit Uganda to develop the adequate regulation prescribed by the IMF and WB (Nyamugasira and Rowden, 2002).

            Structural adjustment resulted in the IFIs having a permanent hand in the running of the country. The extent of the IMF and WB’s involvement in Uganda went so far as pushing the Ugandan government to refuse program funding from the Global Fund for HIV/AIDs, Malaria and Tuberculosis (Ambrose, 2004). The rationale for refusing funding for a major health epidemic (when at least 6% of the population is still infected by HIV/AIDs, and malaria rates are as high as 396 cases per 100,000 people; Reuters, 2008), is that raising government expenditures on healthcare is thought (by the IMF) to distort internal markets, possibly leading to inflation (Ambrose, 2004). Health care and education declines[2], while the inflation rate has remained below 8% since 1994 (dropping from inflation rates of several hundred percent in the late 1980s). So why has the quest for actual poverty reduction been sidelined for economic growth and the “trickle down” effect usually attributed to this growth? Were the IFIs serious in their claim to want to reduce the poverty in the world, or were fancy schemes made to try to silence the international resistance and continue on with “business as usual”?

A Neoliberal Success Story?

            The government revels in the chance to flaunt certain aspects of its record, such as the increase in primary education enrollment rates from 62.3% in 2000 to 91.4% in 2007, the reduction in the prevalence of HIV/AIDs from 19% (in 1992) to around 6.4% (in 2000; which has since remained stagnant or possibly increased[3]), and the robust growth rate averaging at close to 7% over the 1990s (WB, Country Brief, 2008). In fact, the Structural Adjustment Participatory Review International Network (SAPRIN) which studied the effect of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) implemented in Uganda through PRSP and PRGF (a line of credit to write the PRSP) reforms found otherwise. This study shows that access to affordable quality of services did not improve, and in fact, had actually worsened under SAPs (Nyamugasira and Rowden, 2002).

Privatization reforms mandated by the SAPs exacerbated inequality and failed to contribute to macroeconomic efficiency since the sale of state assets under privatization was marred by corruption. No property-owning middle class was created, as had been anticipated and large shares of former state properties were now in the hands of foreigners. Workers that were laid off during the privatization process suffered from inadequate compensation and retraining, resulting in greater job insecurity and income inequality (Nyamugasira and Rowden, 2002). In spite of improvement in coverage of health care facilities and an increased number of doctors and nurses (which still remains incredibly low and concentrated in organizations caring for ‘popular’ issues such as HIV/AIDs and Malaria to the detriment of general health initiatives; Garrett, 2007;26-8), less than 50% of children aged 1-2 years has been immunized. The current HIV program remains completely unsustainable since more than 94% of costs are covered by floating international donors (Nakkazi, 2005).

Concerns about the public involvement in PRSP policy writing contradicted the PRSP mandate to be country-driven. Ugandan NGOs complain that they were invited to provide input on the development of poverty-reduction goals, but not to discuss the nature of the policies necessary to achieve these goals or to be present during the writing of policies. The actual policies attached to loans were determined by IMF and WB representatives in consultation with small technical teams within the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of Uganda. NGOs felt they hadn’t been heard although the IMF had promised that all macroeconomic policies would be “subject to public consultation” (Nyamugasira and Rowden, 2002).

 The proportion of Ugandans living below the $1 per day benchmark for extreme poverty has remained mostly constant (Nakkazi, 2005), even though the WB says poverty has declined (WB, Country Brief, 2008). A high level of population growth (3.2%) means that even though poverty may have declined statistically, the number of people living in extreme poverty has remained relatively unchanged (Nakkazi, 2005).  The provision of teachers and educational facilities has not kept pace with the nearly doubling of students (62.3% enrollment in primary education in 2000 to 91.4% in 2007; WB, Country Brief, 2008), resulting in a decline in the quality of education. Poor completion rates in education are attributed to the introduction of fees for certain services implemented under the SAPs (Nakkazi, 2005).

Privatization, implemented through SAPS, was used by Ugandan government officials to build constituencies of supporters for state policies and to dispense patronage (Pitcher, 2004; 381). Economic elites and political insiders with connections to the state have controlled the entire privatization process, gaining massive advantages for themselves. Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda, and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) used the economic restructuring as a chance to distance themselves from past regimes, removing political elites who were entrenched in state enterprises through civil sector layoffs prescribed by the SAPs. In 1996 about 7,000 Asians returned to Uganda injecting over $500 million into the economy. Museveni agreed to return the assets taken from the Asians under the Amin regime in the late 1970s, also favoring them for several large privatization deals to gain personal advantage (Pitcher, 2004; 387).

The Situation in Northern Uganda

The focus on the economic situation by the government, international donors and aid agencies ignores the continuing conflict in the north of the country where close to a million people have been displaced by violence. This continued violence costs the Ugandan economy a minimum of $100 million per year in lost production alone and is preventing sustainable growth. The conflict was entirely ignored by the World Bank Country Brief who referred to the “situation in Northern Uganda” only in passing (Yanacopulos, 2004; 7-9). Museveni and the government of Uganda are guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity with their campaign of murder, torture, threats, bombing and burning down villages which interned of an entire section of the population (mostly Acholi) into displacement camps for “their own protection”. These camps lack even the basic necessities and are constantly terrorized by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who has abducted more than 25,000 children to be used as soldiers, workers and sex slaves from these camps. More than a quarter of all children in the northern area do not attend school at all because of violence (McCormack, 2006). The WB and IMF are guilty of complicity to these crimes by supporting Museveni and by not recognizing this interned population, and instead hiding the reasons for displacement. Aid comes in to conveniently labeled internally displaced persons (IDPs), instead of condemning the government for its massive human rights violations (Branch, 2008).


            As a land-locked resource scarce country what possibilities does Uganda have for poverty reduction in combination with sustained economic growth in the future? Paul Collier stresses that land-locked resource scarce countries such as Uganda should look to specialize in regional trade, giving priorities to policies on rural development (Selassie, 2008; 6). Conflicts in neighboring Sudan, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have so far not caused significant negative spillovers to economic growth in Uganda; but they have had the effect of limiting regional trade suggested by Collier. Regional alliances also threaten to disrupt trade. Compared to sustainable economic “success” stories (mostly in Asia), Uganda has a per capita income on average 2 ½ times less (Selassie, 2008; 9) at only $370 per year (WB, Country Brief, 2008), limiting its chances for success. The growth rates in the Asian countries have also been significantly higher than Uganda’s, and the level of industrialization in Uganda (up from 12% in 1990/1 to 24% in 2005/6) is still much lower than countries like Chile and China (at around 35%). Urbanization also presents a problem to sustained success in Uganda. Urbanization in Uganda is low at around 12% of the population, not increasing much over the past 20 years despite industrialization (compared to around 40% urbanization in successful Asian economies). The underdeveloped financial sector shows financial liabilities to GDP at around a third of the level observed in successful Asian economies, and private sector credit (the ratio of private sector credit to GDP) stands at one-eighth the level of the Asian economies (Selassie, 2008; 9). These numbers suggest that while Uganda has had reasonable success for an African country, it is hardly to be touted as a “success” quite yet.

            While Uganda has been reasonably successful in sustaining a relatively high level of growth, especially compared to other African nations, it has completely failed in its quest for poverty reduction. The poorest of the poor are little better off than they were decades ago, and although loan forgiveness has been granted; loan repayments remain unsustainable. The government of Uganda is reliant on international donors for about 40% of its budget (Nakkazi, 2005), making sustainability questionable. The lack of concern by the IFIs for human rights abuses by aid-receiving governments is appalling, as the government of Uganda has gained considerable strength from these monies and ensured for themselves and their followers, positions of power and wealth. The debts owed by these loans will be paid on the backs of the poor, and not those who borrowed it or decided how it should be spent. The IFIs’ attempt at ‘poverty reduction’ is laughable, since clearly this is not their main priority. These institutions should be condemned for their lack of concern for their people, and their continual disregard for studies that contradict their desired image. Human rights abuses in Uganda will continue as long as the international community looks the other way and continues to support the government, making long-term poverty reduction and sustainable growth unrealistic.







Works Cited:

1)      Ambrose, Soren. April, 2004. Resisting market fundamentalism! Ending the reign of extremist neo-liberalism. Economic Justice News Online. Vol. 7, No. 2.

2)      Branch, Adam. June 8, 2008. Uganda’s interned victims living in wretched squalor. Enough. The Center for American Progress.

3)      Garrett, Laurie. January/February 2007. Do no harm. The global health challenge. Foreign Affairs. Vol. 86, No. 1; 14-38.

4)      International Monetary Fund (IMF). October 31, 2008. Uganda: Financial position in the Fund. Finance Department.

5)      Kiiza, Julius; Mubazi, John; Kibikyo, D.L. and Kigongo, Aloysius. February 27 2003. Understanding economic and institutional reforms in Uganda. Global Development Network. 

6)      McCormack, Pete. 2006. Uganda Rising. Canadian Independent Firm and Video Fund. Mindset Media. (Film).

7)      Nakkaz, Esther. 2005. Millennium Development Goals in Uganda. OneWorld Uganda Guide. 

8)      Nyamugasira, Warren and Rowden, Rick. April 2002. New strategies, old loan conditions: Do the new IMF and WB loans support countries’ poverty reduction strategies? The case of Uganda. African Action. 

9)      Pitcher, Anne. July 2004. Conditions, commitments, and the politics of restructuring in Africa. Comparative Politics. Vol. 36, No. 4, p. 379-398.

10)  Selassie, Abede Aemro. September 2008. Beyond macroeconomic stability: The quest for industrialization in Uganda. IMF Working Paper. 

11)  World Bank. September 2008. Country Brief. Development Results.

12)  World Bank. September 30, 2008. Uganda: Estimated Debt Service Payments Summary.

13)  Yanacopulos, Helen. March 17-20, 2004. A think piece in dilemmas in conflict and development: The Uganda Case. International Studies Association Conference. Montreal, Canada

[1] Private investment as a percentage of GDP went from 5.4% in 1986-7 to 13% in 1998-9 (Pitcher, 2004; 383)

[2] Health and education spending accounted for only 2% of WB lending. The other lending went to energy/road development (57%), the agricultural sector (13%), the financial sector (10%), the private and public sector (shared 10%), local governance structures (10%), and social protection (8% ; WB, Country Brief, 2008).

[3] A recent country report on the MDGs warns that there are anecdotal indications of an apparent increase in HIV prevalence and incidence during the last few years despite claims of reducing the rate. American donor presence pushed leaders in 2005 to promote the ABC approach to sex (Abstinence, Be faithful, and Condom use). This placed a greater emphasis on abstinence and restricted the distribution of condoms and has been attributed to the increase in prevalence of HIV/AIDs in recent years (Nakkazi, 2005).

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