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November 17, 2011
UN adjusts annual living-standards report card to suit Occupy Wall Street protesters
The United Nations has a terrible record when it comes to the credibility and objectivity of its reports on any number of issues on the globe. Its findings and recommendations tend to follow a heavily politicized, leftist, Third World agenda -- a reflection of the ideological bent of the UN's own bloated bureaucracy.
However, there is one notable exception -- an annual UN report card that ranks countries on the basis of their performance in the areas of health, education and personal income. In UN-speak, the report card is known as the HDI -- the human development index. Health is measured by life expectancy, education by average years of schooling, and income by gross personal income per capita.
For many years, the HDI has been an important treasure trove for statistical research -- a spotlight on how countries treat their people's basic human needs and aspirations. Also, whether their living standards are improving or retrogressing. And most importantly, the UN report card has maintained a high standard of credibility. Its rankings and findings have built an aura of professional credibility.
That's why a statistical twist accompanying this year's HDI causes concern. As in previous years, the UN Development Program, which publishes the report card, starts out by ranking countries -- 186 at the latest count -- on the basis of the usual criteria: health, education and personal income.
Leading this year's rankings is Norway, followed by Australia, Netherlands, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Germany and Sweden rounding out the top 10.
A bit farther down is Israel in 17th position, ahead of Belgium, Austria and France. Not a bad achievement for Israel, which unlike most top-rated countries, has to devote an unusually high portion of its budget to meet its security needs.
And this is where things get interesting. There's not a single Arab country that comes close to matching Israel's living standards. The closest are three oil-rich Persian Gulf sheikdoms: United Arab Emirates in 30th position, Qatar 37th, and Bahrain, 42nd. Saudi Arabia, with its enormous wealth, can do no better than 56th on the HDI rankings -- nearly 40 rungs behind Israel.
For someone -- or some countries -- the HDI rankings appear to have been a bit too much to swallow. Envy of the U.S. and resentment of Israel are common in UN halls. Which may explain why this year's report features a new twist -- an addition to the usual HDI rankings.
The authors call it the "HDI inequality-adapted index." And, lo and behold, when it becomes the yardstick for measuring living standards, "some of the wealthiest nations drop out of the top 20," according to the HDI report. The United States falls from its No. 4 perch to 23rd, while Israel gets booted down from 17th to 25th.
While the added index purports to measure inequalities in health, education and income, the rankings' drop of the U.S. and Israel is due mainly to perceived inequalities in income.
Sounds familiar? Income inequality as an echo of Occupy Wall Street slogans? Since income inequality is the leftist flavor of the month, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the UN is offering statistical sustenance to the demonstrators. All that's now needed is UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon pitching his own tent in lower Manhattan.
The UN predictably couches its rationale for the supplementary rankings in dense bureaucratese jargon. "The inequality-adapted HDI helps us assess better the levels of development for segments of society," explains MIlvad Kovacevic, chief strategist for the HDI.
Sure it does, but forgive my skepticism.
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers
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