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Public Policy: Democracy Slippage Jeopardizes Human Development

August 2002

Article: Democracy Slippage Jeopardizes Human Development

Although scores of countries took steps toward democracy during the 1980s and 1990s, progress in many is stalled and some are slipping back to authoritarian rule, putting human development at risk, according to the annual United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report released July 24, 2002, in Manila.

The report, entitled "Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World," notes that while 140 of the world's nearly 200 countries hold multi-party elections, only 82 are fully democratic, with institutions such as a free press and independent judiciary. It calls for a new wave of democracy building to give ordinary people a greater say in both national and global policy making.

"The central message of this report is a simple one: to promote human development successfully we need to put the politics back into poverty eradication," said Malloch Brown. "That means ensuring that the poor have a real political voice and access to strong, transparent institutions capable of providing them with the kind of personal security, access to justice, and services from health to education they so desperately need."

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Director of the UNDP Human Development Report Office and lead author of the report, said that having the means and the freedom to fight for one's rights, to shape decisions about the future of one's own community, to gain access to crucial information and markets -- in short, having a choice in life, is at the core of human empowerment.

Most parts of the world have made progress in human development, but 21 countries registered a decline in the Human Development Index (HDI), based on life expectancy, adult literacy, and per capita income, during the 1990s. Fully 52 countries ended the decade poorer than at its beginning, and though the number of people living in extreme poverty was nearly halved in Asia, it grew in all other regions, jeopardizing countries' progress towards the Millennium Development Goal of halving severe poverty by 2015.

Aid to developing countries fell during the decade, and for Africa it was halved, dropping from US$39 to US$19 per person annually. Donor countries continued to subsidize their farmers at a rate of US$1 billion a day, more than six times their total aid to poor countries, flooding markets with cheap imports and squeezing out poor country farmers. The number of refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide grew by 50 percent.

These trends are "deeply troubling," said Fukuda-Parr. "All this adds up to a world in urgent need of a political order that can achieve greater inclusion, an order in which all people and countries can have a say in decisions that affect their future, and one with rules and institutions which command trust among all people and countries."

With specific regard to health, the report states that democracies engender an environment conducive to communication about critical health issues, "such as the negative implications for women of a large number of births, the benefits of breast feeding, and the dangers of unprotected sex in the context of HIV/AIDS." In these areas, according to the report, open dialogue and public debate can disseminate information and influence behavior. For example, sharp declines in fertility in highly literate Indian states such as Kerala were due not only to high literacy but also to its interaction with public debates on the benefits of smaller families. The UNDP summarizes that free, open public debates are the cornerstone of a constructive role that democracies can play in promoting development.

Of note, the top five HDI countries in this year's UNDP Human Development Report are Norway, Sweden, Canada, Belgium, and Australia -- all of which account for an average life expectancy at birth of 78.9 years. The five lowest-ranking HDI countries are Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Burundi, Niger, and Sierra Leone -- all of which account for an average life expectancy at birth of 42.1 years.

Editor's Note: The UNDP has commissioned the Human Development Report by an independent team of experts to explore issues of global concern every year since 1990. To view the 2002 Human Development Report, visit

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