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U.N.: Environmental hazards, social factors hamper poor nations

November 2, 2011 | 10:00 am

Environmental trends threaten to halt or even reverse development progress in the world’s poorest nations unless significant measures are taken to curb influences such as climate change and habitat destruction, according to the United Nations Development Program’s annual report on the quality of life worldwide.

But social factors such as subpar healthcare, poor education, gender inequality and income disparities also play a role in hindering the sustainability of the world’s population, according to the report entitled “Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All.” It was launched Wednesday in Copenhagen.

“Sustainability is not exclusively or even primarily an environmental issue,” UNDP Administrator Helen Clark said in the foreword of the report. “It is fundamentally about how we choose to live our lives, with an awareness that everything we do has consequences for the 7 billions of us here today, as well as for the billions more who will follow, for centuries to come.”

The report points out that between 1970 and 2010, countries ranking in the lowest 25% on the human development index improved their overall status by a notable 82%, and had the potential to improve their rankings even further over the next 40 years. But mounting environmental hazards, such as drought, flooding and exposure to air and water pollution were threatening to halt further progress of these nations by mid-century, according to the report.

Other factors noted in the report as impeding the human development progress of poorer nations include the downward slide of income distribution, stark gender imbalances, and water pollution or scarcity. The failure of rich nations to meet their stated pledges to tackle issues such as the effect of climate change on developing nations is also threatening to stymie progress toward worldwide sustainability, according to the report.

The report calls for positive changes and actions such as: providing electricity to the 1.5 billion who have no access to it; considering an international currency trading tax to fund the fight against climate change and extreme poverty; and expanding reproductive rights, healthcare and access to contraceptives for women in the hope of giving them greater empowerment.

Out of the 187 nations surveyed for the human development index report, Norway, Australia and the Netherlands topped the list, while Congo, Niger and Burundi came in last.

The United States took fourth place, ahead of New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Germany and Sweden, which rounded out the top 10 countries.

However, the report noted that when the index is adjusted to reflect internal inequalities in health, education and income, some of the wealthiest nations drop out of the top 20. The  U.S., for example, falls to 23 on the list mainly because of income inequality and disparities in healthcare.


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Photo: Families fleeing a severe drought that has devastated regions of southern Somalia line up for assistance from an aid agency in the Howlwadag district of Mogadishu on Oct. 15. Credit: Abdurashid Abikar / Agence France-Presse