Human development and the Arab states

This is the time of year when various organisations publish their annual international league tables. During the last three weeks we've had the Global Gender Gap, the Press Freedom Index and the Corruption Perceptions Index – in which Arab countries generally performed badly.

Yesterday there was better news when the UN released its 2010 
Human Development Index (a measure of "well-being" derived from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita GDP. Nine Arab countries were ranked "very high" or "high".

Here is the list. Rankings (out of 169 countries surveyed) are shown in brackets.

Very high human development

United Arab Emirates (32)
Qatar (38)
Bahrain (39)

High human development

Kuwait (47)
Libya (53)
Saudi Arabia (55)
Tunisia (81)
Jordan (82)
Algeria (84)

Medium human development

Egypt (101)
Syria (111)
Morocco (114)

Low human development

Yemen (133)
Mauritania (136)
Comoros (140)
Djibouti (147)
Sudan (154)

(Iraq, Lebanon, Oman, Somalia and Palestine were omitted because of incomplete or unreliable data.)

"The high-achieving Arab countries can attribute their success largely to impressive long-term improvements in health and education, the non-income dimensions of the Human Development Index," Jeni Klugman, lead author of the Human Development Report, says in a note accompanying the latest figures. The note explains: 

"Life expectancy in the Arab countries generally increased from 51 years in 1970 to almost 70 today, the greatest gain of any region in the world, while infant mortality rates plummeted from 98 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1970 to 38 in 2008, below the current world average of 44 per 1,000.

"School enrolment in the Arab states nearly doubled over the past four decades, rising from 34% in 1970 to 64% today. The average years of education for the current adult population of the Arab countries is now estimated at 5.7 years; less than the world average of 7.4 years, but significantly above the levels of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with 4.5 and 4.6 years, respectively."

The note adds that military conflicts have had an adverse effect on human development: "On average, the Arab region has suffered almost three times as much as any other region in the world in terms of years of conflict; over an 18-year period – from 1990 to 2008."

Behind the headline figures, though, there's a more disturbing picture. This year, for the first time, the UN has tried to take inequalities into account – and it's an area where the Arab countries, taken as a whole, perform especially badly.

In the inequality-adjusted index, Arab states suffer a loss of 28%. "Only sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia had greater losses due to inequality in general," the UN says, adding: "The Arab countries collectively had the highest overall loss of any region in the education dimension: 43%."

This is largely due to gender inequality. Only 32% of women in the region over the age of 25 have completed secondary education, compared to 45% of men, the report says. University enrolment however, shows the reverse pattern, with 132 women for every 100 men.

The Arab states also perform far worse than any other region of the world in terms of gender inequality in the labour market (table 5.5).