Few worldwide enjoy all of society's benefits U.N. report finds vast inequities

May 16, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Despite sweeping political, economic an social changes, fewer than 10 percent of people worldwide now participate fully in the institutions and decisions that shape their lives, according to a new United Nations report.

Disparities among ethnic, gender and economic groups are stark, even in the United States, which now ranks sixth after Japan, Canada, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden on the Human Development Index that rates standards of living.

But when separated by ethnic groups, U.S. whites rank first in the world, while African-Americans come in 31st, after citizens of poor Caribbean nations such as Trinidad and Tobago.

Hispanic Americans come in 35th, behind residents of struggling former Soviet satellites such as Estonia or Third World countries such as South Korea -- and just ahead of the peoples of Chile, Russia and Malta.

"Full equality is a distant prospect in the United States," the 1993 U.N. Human Development Report concludes.

The infant mortality rate for blacks, for example, is more than twice as high as that for whites, while per capita income for blacks is $13,378, only 60 percent of the white per capita income of $22,372. And more than half of black American children are growing up in single-parent homes, almost three times the rate of white Americans.

Yet the report cites the United States not because of its inequities, but for its successes -- and the implications for the rest of the world.

"The United States has a commendable record on human rights and affirmative action. It is an open society, with nondiscrimination written into law and a media that keeps pressure on the issue. And there have been tremendous improvements in integration since the 1960s," said Mahbub ul-Haq, former finance and planning minister of Pakistan and now chief architect of the U.N. Development Program's annual report.

"But the United States still has grave problems, which only shows how far most other countries have to go."

Almost every country has at least one and often several underprivileged ethnic groups whose education, political access, economic opportunities and life expectancy fall seriously below the national average, according to the report.

But the problem is not limited to minorities. Worldwide, the majority of people are still excluded from full economic participation.

More than a billion of the world's people -- one in every four -- languish in absolute poverty, for example, while the richest fifth has more than 150 times the income of the poorest fifth.

The case of women offers another stark example.

Although they form a majority globally, women are vastly underrepresented in political systems, occupying about 10 percent of parliamentary seats and fewer than 4 percent of Cabinet posts, said the U.N. report, which was prepared by an independent team of economists for the United Nations.

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