The Best Place to Live

CARL T. ROWAN

June 25, 1993|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Ask an American which of the world's countries offers the highest quality of living, and you're likely to be told, ''The good old U.S.A.'' That's a reasonable, if predictable reply. On the whole, life is good here.

But put the same query to a neutral party that has access to worldwide social and economic data -- someone, say, like the United Nations -- and you get a surprisingly different response.

The United States ranks only sixth in the latest Human Development Index published by the U.N. Development Program behind Japan, Canada, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden.

And if that rating shocks or disappoints you, look at what happens when it's broken down into specific groups. If only white Americans are considered, this country jumps up to the top spot. On the other hand, if only the condition of black Americans is measured, the U.S. ties for 31st with Trinidad and Tobago -- behind Barbados, Greece and Hungary, among other countries. The U.S. Hispanic population by itself ranks 35th.

Other population subgroups that live like separate nations within their own borders -- wherever those borders may be -- are the poor, residents of rural areas and women. Not a single country treats its women as well as it treats its men, says the U.N. report. Women are less likely to be literate; they have fewer job opportunities and in some countries they are not allowed to vote.

The U.N. Development Program's ''human development'' rankings are based on a formula that considers real purchasing power, education and health. Mahbub ul Haq, former finance and planning minister of Pakistan and now special adviser to the U.N. program, points out that the basic message of human development is that growth must be translated into the lives of people.

The central issue of our time, says the U.N. report, is ''people's participation,'' and the overwhelming majority of people around the world -- at least nine out of ten -- do not actively participate in the events and processes that shape their lives.

''Income is essential,'' says Mr. Haq, ''but it is only a means, not the sum total of human life. People make many choices besides making money which affect their lives.''

The good news, according to the report, is that many new ''windows of opportunity'' are opening. It urges changes in priorities and approaches to emphasize the ''human'' aspects of human development.

For example, concepts of security must stress the security of people, not just nations. ''It is shameful that there are eight times as many soldiers in poor nations as there are doctors,'' notes Mr. Haq.

The report emphasizes that the world's nations must invest in human infrastructure -- education, family planning, basic social services and the like -- as well as in physical infrastructure.

And, it warns, new forms of international cooperation must be developed that focus directly on the needs of people rather than on the preferences of nations. In 1991, Mr. Haq points out, more than half of the $20 billion given by the United States in bilateral foreign assistance was military aid, and 60 percent of the remainder went to five ''strategically important'' countries -- Israel, Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines and El Salvador.

''Why should El Salvador get more aid than Bangladesh, when Bangladesh has 120 million poor people to El Salvador's 5 million?'' Mr. Haq asks. ''Why does Egypt get $370 per poor person while India gets just $64?''

''Poverty is becoming internationalized, without our knowing it,'' warns Mr. Haq. ''It travels across borders without a passport and threatens the disintegration of societies. This is the real threat to the world, not military might.''

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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